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Athlete, Artist, Indian Chief

From dark horse to Nighthorse, it's been one hell of a ride for Ben Campbell.

In the entryway are photographs of Campbell dressed in a Cheyenne eagle-feather bonnet, given to him by the Northern Cheyenne when he was enrolled in their official records in 1980. Other walls are decorated with Indian dream-catchers and paintings, as well as photographs of Western scenery; coffee-table books about Colorado line the tables.

Serious-looking young staffers hurry from room to room. To get an hour with the senator on this or any other day, you must first get past Kontnik. "He's enjoying great national press at this time, just great," she says. "But we're not willing--not the senator or staff--to get beaten up or nailed to the wall."

Specifically, Campbell says, "I'm not interested in discussing all that bullshit about my changing parties. All reporters are interested in is going to my former staff to get juicy accusations. But nobody talks to the staff who stayed on."

That staff is particularly interested in seeing that people read the "authorized" 1993 biography of the senator, Ben Nighthorse Campbell: An American Warrior, by Herman Viola. "That might answer a lot of your questions," says deputy press secretary Doyle, a former journalist who first met Campbell as a campaign volunteer in 1986. "It's the most accurate account I've found."

On the front cover of the book is a photograph of Campbell wearing a cowboy hat and his trademark Indian jewelry, standing with his arms crossed in front of the U.S. Capitol. The back cover shows Campbell as an Indian chief, wearing an eagle-feather bonnet and face paint and holding a lance as he and his trusty steed, War Bonnet, trot down Pennsylvania Avenue during Clinton's inaugural parade.

Viola, former director of the National Anthropological Archives in Washington, D.C., wrote the book at Campbell's request after the senator read two of Viola's earlier efforts about American Indians. In the book's preface, Viola says he accepted the "challenge" of writing Campbell's life story with the caveat that he would publish what he found, "warts and all." Campbell had assured him he was "clean as a hound's tooth," the author said, except for a few speeding tickets and some trouble he got into as a youth.

And in fact, few warts appear in Viola's book. Those that do--Campbell's youthful scrapes with the law, his three marriages, his infamous temper--are largely glossed over or turned into attributes. But Viola and his archivist wife performed an even more valuable service for Campbell while researching the book: They found anecdotal support for his claim to Indian ancestry.

"There are things in there that I didn't know myself," Campbell says, settling back into an easy chair in his sitting room. "For instance, I had no idea that my grandmother was murdered on the streets of Pagosa Springs by a jealous lover. All my dad ever said to me was that she had died. She was a hooker, or they called them 'washer women' in those days."

Albert Campbell was working at a sanitorium in Weimar, California, when he met Mary Vierra, a Portuguese immigrant who'd contracted tuberculosis in 1917 and become a patient there. They fell in love, married in 1929 and had two children: Alberta, born on her father's birthday on July 12, 1930, and Benjamin, born April 13, 1933. A devout Catholic, Mary had both children baptized in that faith.

Albert, dark-haired and brown-eyed, was an alcoholic who couldn't hold a job for long. He and Mary tried to make a go of their own business, but that failed when he kept drinking and disappearing for weeks or months on end. Meanwhile, Mary was in and out of the sanitorium, where she also worked during periods of relative health.

When Ben was less than two years old, Mary requested that her children be placed in St. Patrick's Home for Children, a Catholic orphanage outside of Sacramento. Albert Campbell had deserted the family, she said, and she was too sick to care for the kids alone. But orphanage officials said Ben was too young and urged Mary to find help so that she could keep him at home.

Mary's employers let her bring her children to live on the grounds of the sanitorium with the children of patients. And increasingly, Mary was one of those patients. Ben Campbell's recollections of those days are vague, but one memory stands out. "We could never touch our mothers or be with them, but at least we could see them and wave to them or talk to them through a window," he told Viola.

In January 1939, in poor health and with her husband in jail for drunkenness and failure to support his family, Mary finally was allowed to bring her children to St. Patrick's. "Talk about abandonment," Campbell told Viola. "I think the experience left some real scars; to this day I have a little bit of fear about being abandoned. I don't blame my mother for that. She had nothing. My dad was off drinking. She didn't have a choice."

The orphanage separated Campbell from his sister. Although their stay there lasted only six months, Campbell would later say that his sister became "a stranger to me." Alberta married right out of high school, but the pretty, shy girl never found happiness. At 44, Alberta died from a combination of sleeping pills and alcohol. Although there was no suicide note, "Ben was convinced her death was deliberate because of previous attempts," Viola noted.

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