Calhoun: Wake-Up Call

Return of the Native

A year ago next week, Senator Ben Nighthorse Campbell threw a big, wet blanket on the Colorado Republican Party -- almost as big, and wet, a blanket as he'd thrown on Colorado Democrats nine years earlier, when the first-term senator abandoned the political party that had already seen him through six terms in the House and a dozen years in the Colorado Legislature. Ben Switchhorse Campbell, they called him back then.

The Republicans were muttering a lot worse under their breath in March 2004. Ben Nighthorse Campbell's surprise announcement that he was retiring from the Senate -- just ahead of a pesky ethics investigation involving a former staffer and some alleged influence-peddling -- left them scrambling for another candidate. The situation quickly grew more desperate, as Governor Bill Owens -- just behind a pesky separation -- took himself out of the running. Finally, overlooking the already declared (and far more erudite) Bob Shafer, the Republicans settled on Pete Coors, the beer baron whose candidacy fell more flat with each passing day.

The sight was so dispiriting that Colorado Republicans just couldn't get excited when Campbell suggested that he might, just might, be interested in running for governor when Owens is term-limited out in 2006.

A year after he announced that he was retiring from the Senate, where he was the first Native American to serve in sixty years, Campbell's not even Colorado's most famous alleged Indian.

The National Museum of the American Indian spirals to a soaring 120 feet above the National Mall in Washington, D.C. And here, at the very top of an architecturally stunning building that seems designed to showcase Native American gift shops and not much more, is the traveling exhibit The Jewelry of Ben Nighthorse.

The show, proposed by Fort Lewis College and sponsored by the Southern Ute, is a sterling reminder that, however disappointing Campbell may have been as a Democrat and a lawmaker, he knows how to make a hell of a bracelet.

Unlike Ward Churchill, who in 1990 lost the ability to sell his paintings as "Indian" art under the terms of the Indian Arts and Crafts Act, Ben Nighthorse Campbell has no problem displaying his work as a Native American. (Then-representative Campbell co-sponsored the legislation that requires an artist's name to appear on a tribal roll before he's allowed to represent his art as "Indian.") In fact, this exhibit, although temporary, was in place the day the museum opened last September. (Then-representative Campbell also sponsored the legislation making the museum possible.) And Campbell himself "was selected to be one of the individuals to lead the Native Nations Procession for the grand opening of the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian in September 2004," one exhibit explanation notes.

The Jewelry of Ben Nighthorse starts with "The Early Years: Jewelry to Make Ends Meet," which describes how Albert Campbell taught his fourteen-year-old son, Ben, to make Navajo jewelry -- a skill he'd learned not from his ancestors, but from friends. The less polite chapters of Albert's past, including his alcoholism and the desertion of his family when his tubercular Portuguese wife got so sick she had to go into the sanitarium, sending his children to foster homes, are not shared here.

Although jewelry paid some of the early bills, it wasn't until Ben Campbell was well on his way to acquiring his amazing resumé -- the "list of accomplishments reads like a biography of a movie star action hero, with Korea War veteran, U.S. Olympic judo expert, teacher, truck driver, horse trainer, deputy sheriff, U.S. Senator, artist," reads one exhibit card, somehow omitting Harley-rider and ponytail-wearer -- that he started taking jewelry-making seriously. In 1974, his work won first place in the California State Fair.

Around this time, Campbell started taking his Indian ancestry seriously, too. "As an adult, Ben Nighthorse sought out his Native American heritage even though his father downplayed his Native American ancestry to shield him from ethnic bias of the time," another exhibit card reads. "Based on his father's ancestry, Nighthorse was accepted as a member of the Northern Cheyenne Tribe and, in 1976, the Black Horse family of Lame Deer, Montana, acknowledged him as their son. A Northern Cheyenne leader gave Ben Campbell the name Nighthorse in memory of Nighthorse's great grandfather, Black Horse. Black Horse fought General George Armstrong Custer in the Battle of the Little Bighorn." (Then-representative Campbell pushed through the legislation to change the name of the Custer Battlefield Monument in Montana to the Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument.)

Indian artist Campbell adopted as his trademark stamp the Morning Star, the Cheyenne symbol that represents the "son of the sun and the moon," which the Northern Cheyenne gave him permission to use. In doing so, though, the tribe gave him much more than that. It gave him the tools to carve out the rest of his career.

In 1977, Campbell moved to Ignacio, built his Nighthorse Ranch, got a job running the Southern Ute's horse-training center, invented the "painted mesa" style of jewelry, and soon became a member of the Colorado Legislature. In 1985, the Northern Cheyenne inducted him into the Council of 44 Chiefs, responsible for moral and spiritual leadership of the tribe. A year later, he was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives from the Third Congressional District.

From there it was on to the Senate, and his inexplicable switch to the Republican Party, and then his equally inexplicable decision not to run again for the Senate. "On March 3, 2004," a final exhibit card notes, "Ben Nighthorse Campbell announced his retirement from the Senate and his intention to focus on his family and his art."

Not exactly. Campbell's jewelry on display here may not be for sale, but the senator himself sure was. Although an eagerness to return to Colorado was one of the few reasons Campbell offered for leaving the Senate, last month the high-powered law-and-lobbying firm of Holland & Knight announced that Campbell was joining its government section as a senior policy advisor -- he can't join as an attorney, since a law degree is one of the few things missing from his resumé -- working out of the Washington, D.C., office.

While Campbell won't be able to officially lobby his former colleagues in Congress for a year, the buffed and polished former politico is already making a rumored million bucks.

Back when people were questioning Campbell's political switch, they were also questioning his Indian ancestry. "What do they need, a blood test?" he asked a Westword reporter.

Campbell's "authorized" 1993 biography, Herman Viola's Ben Nighthorse Campbell: An American Warrior, did its best to clear things up. Although many tribal records had been destroyed, Viola theorized that not only was Albert Campbell's grandfather Black Horse, but his mother was a Cheyenne girl who'd escaped the Sand Creek Massacre, where 163 Indians were slaughtered by Colorado militia troops on November 29, 1864. As a U.S. senator, Campbell talked a lot about formally designating the massacre site in Kiowa County as a National Historic Site. But he waited so long to push the legislation that by the time it got through the Senate at the end of the last session, it was too late for the House.

Senate Wayne Allard is now shepherding the proposal through. Last Wednesday, the day the formal designation of the Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site passed the Senate Energy Committee, Campbell was talking about Churchill, now Colorado's most famous alleged Indian. The matter of whether Churchill was even an Indian was open for debate, Campbell told a radio audience. As he shared with another reporter, "He sure doesn't represent Indian country."

But Campbell sure doesn't represent Colorado anymore, either.

KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Patricia Calhoun co-founded Westword in 1977; she’s been the editor ever since. She’s a regular on the weekly CPT12 roundtable Colorado Inside Out, played a real journalist in John Sayles’s Silver City, once interviewed President Bill Clinton while wearing flip-flops, and has been honored with numerous national awards for her columns and feature-writing.
Contact: Patricia Calhoun

Latest Stories