Athlete, Artist, Indian Chief

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

That same reporter said that Campbell told him his father never revealed that he had Indian blood. (Campbell himself says that as a kid he told few people he was part Indian and instead passed as an Italian--which would make it hard for people to discriminate against him because he was a "half-breed.") According to the Japanese reporter, Campbell realized he was Indian when he watched Indians making jewelry in New Mexico.

Other people have gotten other versions of Campbell's story. An editor at Indian Country Today, the nation's largest Indian publication, cites an article in which Campbell said he realized he was an Indian because of his childhood fascination with bows and arrows.

According to Viola's book, Campbell became interested in tracing his Native American heritage after he returned from Japan in the mid-Sixties, at a time when Indians were rediscovering pride in their past. "The family knew he was Indian, but Albert Campbell insisted they keep it a secret," Viola wrote. "He was ashamed. There was a great deal of prejudice in California at that time against people of color, especially Japanese and Indians."

Now when Campbell pressed his father about his heritage, Albert told him only that they were related to the Black Horse family of the Northern Cheyenne. So in 1968, Campbell traveled to the Northern Cheyenne reservation in Lame Deer, Montana. After sharing what little information his father had given him with patriarch Alec Black Horse, the old man smiled and said, "I'm glad you came. I needed another son."

Campbell began making regular visits to the reservation, sometimes three or four a year, usually laden with gifts of food and clothing. "He believes his generosity facilitated his ready acceptance by the Northern Cheyennes," Viola noted.

Certainly it was not Campbell's ability to prove that he was three-eighths Northern Cheyenne. According to Viola, important documents had been lost in two fires--one at a military base where Albert Campbell's records were kept, another on the Lame Deer reservation--and even Viola, an experienced archivist, had trouble fitting the bits and pieces together.

The best Viola could do was theorize that Campbell could be descended from a Cheyenne girl who may have escaped the massacre of Cheyenne and Arapaho at Sand Creek and later turned up in New Mexico. This girl grew into the woman who was killed in Pagosa Springs and was probably the mother of Albert, who at age ten shows up alone on the Crow Reservation in Wyoming. Albert claimed to be half-Apache--possibly, Viola suggested, because of his father's roots. Albert ran away from the Crow reservation and ended up in Lame Deer, where he was taken in by the Black Horse family. During the course of Viola's research, the Northern Cheyenne suggested that Albert's mother might have been the older half-sister of Alec Black Horse, from the southern branch of the tribe in Oklahoma.

But even before Viola started researching Campbell's background, the Northern Cheyenne had accepted him. In 1980, with the Black Horse family speaking for him, Campbell was officially enrolled as a member of the tribe and took the name Nighthorse. In 1984, the tribe made Campbell one of its 44 chiefs, an office that has no real power and mostly oversees religious ceremonies and serves as a sounding board for the tribal council.

Campbell says that tracing his Indian heritage was the most important act of his life. Not only did it give him a past, it gave him a whole new family of cousins--however many times removed. "Unfortunately, they're almost always broke," he says, laughing.

"They acknowledge and accept me, and that's enough for me," he continues, bridling at the suggestion that some people, including other Indians, question his right to claim that heritage. "What do they need, a blood test? Great--next we'll say you have to have a blood test to prove you're Jewish.

"It hurts," he continues. "There was an incident when I was first running for Congress when there was an orchestrated attempt to discredit me. The chairman of the tribe got so pissed that he was going to form a car caravan from the reservation. He wanted to ask this guy, 'Who are you to say who is or isn't one of us?'"

And an Indian heritage isn't necessarily a political bonus, Campbell points out. He gets hate mail directed solely at his advertised ancestry. "They say, 'You dirty redskin,' and things like that," he complains. "It'd actually be easier to pass as an Italian, like we did when I was a kid."

He gets criticism from the Indian side, too. During his first campaign for Congress in 1986, Campbell says, he thought about dropping the "Nighthorse" name because it was difficult to fit on posters. But then an Indian friend accused him of being ashamed of his heritage.

"Sometimes Indians don't understand that I can't be 'their' senator, that I have to represent all the people of Colorado," he says. "White, black, yellow, green. That's probably part of the reason there's not more Indians in Congress. They want to run only on Indian issues.

"I had to learn my own lesson about that," he continues. "Early on in my career, I was looking for support from the Southern Utes, and an old woman told me, 'We support you and will give what we can, but not too much, because it would hurt you if you are seen by whites as only an Indian candidate. You have to speak for all the people.'"

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