Athlete, Artist, Indian Chief

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

Even so, Campbell acknowledges that he tries to champion Indian causes whenever appropriate. His favorite piece of legislation, he says, was when he sponsored a 1991 House bill to change the name of the Custer Battlefield National Monument to the Little Bighorn Battlefield.

And he says that Americans could learn a lot from the Indian way of thinking. For example, in this year's presidential race, "Dole is portrayed as too old," he says. "But Indians believe in listening to their elders, that dignity, experience, knowledge and patience come with age.

"White society denigrates the old. We put them in rest homes until they dry up and die. It's 'Oh, you're over seventy, you don't know what the hell you're doing.' Indians refer to all elders, even those who aren't related to them, as grandmother and grandfather."

Often Campbell finds himself the man in the middle, caught between traditional Indian beliefs and the pro-development stance of some of his constituents, including tribal members. The Southern Ute Grassroots Organization that opposes the construction of Animas-La Plata, for instance, does so in part because of cultural prohibitions against damming water and altering the natural world. But the Southern Ute tribal council has sided with water-hungry real estate developers and white farmers and ranchers.

Campbell first jumped in to support the water project when he was a freshman state representative in 1981. Seven years later, at the close of his first term as a congressman, Campbell was credited with the passage of the Colorado Ute Indian Water Rights Settlement Act, the implementing legislation that had been negotiated between the tribes and such jurisdictions as the states of Colorado and New Mexico. Despite Campbell's strong support, though, the project has been stymied several times since, labeled economically unfeasible by the Bureau of Reclamation.

Funding for the first phase of the $710 million project will come from the federal and Colorado governments, as well as potential users. But while the two Ute tribes will own one-third of the water, any provisions for getting the water to their lands falls under the project's second phase--for which there are no funding commitments.

"I don't know how Phase II will be funded," Campbell says. "Maybe by the tribes themselves. But at least they own a third of the water in the reservoir, and that's better than letting it run downhill to California."

Campbell says he doesn't know if he will support federal funding for Phase II. Without that funding, the project's Indian opponents argue, building Phase II would bankrupt the tribes.

Campbell sees no conflict between planned development and Indian ways. "Indians believe that God is in everything--animals, plants, stones," he says. "Indians have a reverence for all things and see them as equals. The Christian-Judeo ethic is that man has dominion over all these things. The Indian way is a good way to believe. On the other hand, I'm not opposed to dams and timber-cutting, just so long as we don't totally destroy everything."

Campbell hasn't completely immersed himself in Indian culture. Although he has participated in some ceremonies, such as dances, singing and sweat lodges, he has not joined in the most significant religious ceremony, the Sun Dance. Like the Sun Dances of most tribes, the Cheyenne version goes on for four days of dancing and praying without food or water. But unlike most of the other dancers, the Cheyenne mutilate themselves by cutting off strips of skin and piercing chest muscles with thongs, by which the dancers are suspended.

"Your body is all you have to give back to the Creator," explains Campbell. "I've been told by some of the older people that I need to do it. They say I've been given lots of gifts--artist, senator--and it's time to give something back. I've often wondered about doing it, but I wonder how it would be perceived. After all, I wasn't raised on the reservation. And I don't know if I'm emotionally ready, not to mention the physical stamina it takes.

"I know for sure there'd be a political backlash," he adds. "The network of my enemies would be all over it: 'He's a heathen and pagan. He lacks Christian family values.' If it's not Christian, then it's a cult. So I go and watch and support the dancers. But I don't know if there will ever be a right time for me."

Tribal leaders waited with him on the night of his 1992 election to the Senate. When it became clear he had won, Campbell says, they wouldn't let him acknowledge his victory before he had gone through a purification ceremony. "They're really proud of me," Campbell adds.

A sign outside the powwow grounds at Lame Deer welcomes visitors to the Northern Cheyenne reservation, "Home of U.S. Senator Ben Nighthorse Campbell."

If the Northern Cheyenne wanted to enroll Campbell, "good for him," says Sage Remington, a full-blooded Ute. "But it doesn't mean the rest of us have to accept him."

The problem with Campbell's claim to an Indian heritage, according to Remington, is that he has adopted only the romance and myth of Indians. "He knows nothing about what it was like to be raised on a reservation or as an Indian in an urban area," he says. "He's a good sideshow, the best thing since P.T. Barnum. He pulls out a feather and the peace pipe--or maybe today it's a Harley-Davidson and tomorrow it's the Marlboro Man. He's a real chameleon. But as an Indian, he portrays an image as the dominant culture wants to see Indians.

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