Sticking Point

Step right up and get your gen-u-wine Ben Nighthorse knife!

A "tribal knife" being advertised in a Sunday newspaper supplement distributed around the country as the artwork of U.S. Senator Ben Nighthorse Campbell is about as genuine as its faux-turquoise pommel. Campbell, who acknowledges creating the basic design of "The Cheyenne Buffalo Knife" several years ago for the Franklin Mint, says he knows little else about the product except that he thinks it's "mass-produced" on the other side of the globe.

That hasn't stopped the knife's sellers from capitalizing on Campbell's name--or at least part of it. Some of the copy in the advertisement raises eyes in the Indian-art world, where Campbell is a respected jeweler, by proclaiming him "the most famous Indian artist of our time."

"To tell the truth," says Paul Shupe, the assistant director of Joan Cawley's Gallery in Flagstaff, Arizona, one of the oldest and most respected Indian art galleries in the Southwest, "I would have thought that title belonged to R.C. Gorman or, after him, maybe Zuniga or Tamayo."

Campbell, who says he hasn't seen the advertisement in the USA Weekend Sunday newspaper supplement, laughs when told of the compliment and says, "Well, that was nice of them to say so."

The senator says he has nothing to do with the knife except that he designed it and several other "tribal knives" when approached by the Franklin Mint several years ago; the company bought the right to market the product using the trademarked name "Ben Nighthorse."

When Campbell was still a member of the U.S. House, the House Ethics Committee insisted that he form a "family corporation," Nighthorse Inc., headed by his son and wife, for his jewelry business. He was to remove himself from the business end of the company to avoid the appearance of using his senatorial position to sell jewelry. And he's not supposed to make any profit from the sale of his art through the Nighthorse corporation. The Franklin Mint is not allowed to use the name Campbell or make reference to his status as a senator. After that, says Campbell, "they can pretty much do anything they want."

The advertisement avoids either reference. However, there's little doubt about the artist's identity, in part because of a full-color photograph of Campbell in his Cheyenne war bonnet and regalia, the same outfit he wore in President Clinton's 1993 inaugural parade.

The knife, a fifteen-inch pigsticker of "tempered steel...embellished with silver and 24 karat gold," is adorned on the hilt by a "sculptured head of a Buffalo, long revered by the Cheyenne people." The hilt itself is meant to look like buffalo horns, coated in 24-karat gold, with a pommel of plastic turquoise. All for just $195.

The ad proudly proclaims that the knife's production is "authorized" by the American Indian Heritage Foundation. But the knife has little to do with Cheyenne history or art, except that it was designed by Campbell, who says he discovered his Northern Cheyenne roots at mid-life. The Plains Indians didn't have steelmaking or pewter-casting capabilities. Actually, the knife isn't even produced in the United States. Campbell says the individual doing the advertised "hand-painting" is "probably some guy in Seoul."

Wil Rose, chief executive officer of the American Indian Heritage Foundation, says the actual knife-makers are more likely in Malaysia or China. The foundation, Rose says, is paid "a small fee" by the Franklin Mint--a private company that specializes in mass-producing mementos from Elvis plates to Indian statuettes--to "authenticate" any production involving American Indian themes. Whether that means anything is uncertain. Indian activists have questioned the claimed Native American heritage of Rose's wife, foundation president Princess Pale Moon, who was born Rita Suntz and claims to have discovered her ancestral roots at mid-life.

Campbell says he doesn't know anything about the arrangement between the Franklin Mint and the foundation. The fact that it's his name on the product, he adds, doesn't mean he's otherwise involved.

"You don't think Ralph Lauren sews all those clothes and handbags himself, do you?" muses Campbell.

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