When Ben Nighthorse Campbell, the only American Indian in the U.S. Senate, switched from Democrat to Republican in 1995, he surprised some who criticized him severely. But seasoned Indian observers saw a silver lining. An Indian senator within earshot of the Republican congressional majority was indeed worth having. As the Republican Party won the majority of Congress and then the White House in 2000, the logic of this position was borne out. Senator Campbell has championed all major American Indian issues in Congress. Ironically, it was the unwillingness of the Democrats then to support the Balanced Budget Amendment, among other issues, that sent him packing to the GOP.
Now that he has announced his retirement after two terms, the maverick senator that often went the extra mile for Indian issues, sometime against his own state-wide political interests, will be sorely missed. He has become a symbol of recognition and reasonable discussion for tribal interests. We hope his exit from politics does not signal the disappearance of an era when Indians could count on such dependable legislators - when Campbell and Senator Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, could step in and out of the chairmanship of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, depending on whether Democrats or Republicans controlled the powerful body.
Campbell, 70, leaves the Senate after "much soul-searching and reflection." A brush with prostate cancer last year and an emergency hospital stop the first week of March involving chest pains apparently signaled his decision to, "return to my ranch with my family that I love."
A recent Senate ethics investigation that involves accusations by a former staff member about bonuses intended to produce kickbacks for another staffer appears not to involve the senator and he has turned over all relevant documents.
A colorful senator who sometimes showed up in a fringed jacket riding his motorcycle, Campbell is a Northern Cheyenne tribal chief, a rancher and a distinguished artist. He is among only eight Indians to ever serve in Congress. Elected to the Senate as a Democrat in 1992, Campbell switched parties in 1995. He won again in the 1998 election as a Republican.
Campbell served Colorado well with projects from transportation to higher education to defense and aerospace industries and gets consistent kudos from fellow Colorado legislators, although certainly the jockeying for his senatorial seat has already begun.
Of particular note for Indian country, Campbell's decision means there is not likely to be an American Indian in the Senate next term. Campbell, Northern Cheyenne, is the only Indian in the current Senate and one of only a handful to ever serve there. He has been a thoughtful champion on virtually every Native issue of note. Most recently, as Indian Country Today veteran Washington reporter, Jerry Reynolds, noted, Campbell "oversaw the passage of a probate reform bill through an initial 'mark-up' meeting of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, which he chairs." Campbell has been frontline on everything from sacred sites to energy protections to Indian health to the defense of Indian economic initiatives.
He was most involved in the past season on the energy bill, which he championed for providing more power of decision making to the tribes. Dependably, he pushed for land into trust availability and in confirmation of tribal sovereignty while staking out a national-level position on the issue. "Dependence on foreign energy is a dangerous game," wrote the Indian senator during that initiative. "To be dependent on foreign suppliers is to be at their mercy." (U.S. Senator Ben Nighthorse Campbell: "Unlocking the potential of Indian tribal energy," Indian Country Today's, Vol. 21, No.45).
Campbell: "For too long, abundant Indian energy resources have been overlooked and undervalued. The Department of Interior estimates that only 25 percent of Indian oil reserves and less than 20 percent of Indian gas reserves have been developed. Enlisting Indian tribes in the national energy effort will simultaneously help jump-start moribund Indian economies," he wrote. Campbell held up the Southern Ute Tribe of Colorado as an example of a premier natural gas producer within the United States.
Because of his unique position as Indian rancher, tribal chief and U.S. Senator, Campbell has also been keen on cleaning up the Fractionated Heirship policy. This has been the policy of forcing progressive subdivision of tribal family allotments every generation, lands to be shared equally by all descendants. Often disallowing wills or any reasonable family dictate, the forced "equal" inheritance ad infinitum has divided and subdivided Indian homesteads so that some 80-acre parcels have often more than 100 owners. Consensus on land use is nearly impossible in these circumstances and the land is often taken over by the BIA for leasing to mostly non-Indian ranchers or other interests. It was a great strategy for separating Indians from useful relations with their tribal assets. As Tex Hall, chairman of the Three Affiliated Tribes in North Dakota and President of the National Congress of American Indians, reminded the Senate at that time, "President [Theodore] Roosevelt [called] the General Allotment Act ... 'a great pulverizing engine designed to crush the Indian mass.'"
Few have been able to champion solutions to the policy's tremendously negative impacts on Indian people like Ben Nighthorse Campbell. The Indian senator worked to establish a uniform interstate probate. Inter-tribal inheritance and inheritance by non-members is another important area to clarify. Midwestern tribes have addressed the fractionation problem by issuing codes that will turn small portions of inherited lands into trust land for the tribe. The writing of legally sound wills is another important value.
Senator Campbell also was extremely diligent on matters of particular concern to Indian health. This resulted in increased funds and attention to diabetes prevention and treatment technology in Indian country.
A strong supporter of "contracting and compacting," Campbell sponsored the Indian Tribal Self Governance Amendments, enacted in 2000, that made self governance in Indian health permanent. The IHS now contracts and compacts out to tribes and tribal organizations more than 50 percent of its $2.2 billion budget.
The Indian senator from Colorado proved a loyal soldier to the Republicans and his own self-made success story has been an example of personal responsibility, self-reliance and self-determination. His reasoning for why tribes' best interests ultimately should be identified with the Republican Party is still the most compelling.
In 2002, an Indian Country Today reporter asked Campbell about what each political party offers Indian country. Campbell cited a difference in their basic philosophies toward working with tribes:
"If you're trying to improve the lives of people, one way is to give more and more things, money or whatever, the other way is to put in place an atmosphere in which they can make progress on their own ? I think if you talk about real sovereignty, you can't be sovereign and depend on another nation. If you're going to be sovereign that means taking care of yourself ?
"Democrats tend to say we're going to help Indians by making them more dependent. Republicans want to put in place things like direct pass-through money so that tribes can actually get the money they're entitled to and yet run the thing themselves."
Still, he always reiterated that the federal government had to comply with its trust responsibilities. "That's a commitment the federal government has made to tribes as separate nations," he said. His work on behalf of American Indian communities, the senator has said, was to "put those bills in place that will enable tribes to take care of themselves."
We salute U.S. Senator Ben Nighthorse Campbell upon his retirement. His commendable goals in legislation have produced an admirable standard concept and pragmatism. His tireless efforts to educate both Indians and non-Indians about how to best understand and maneuver in the American political system for maximum advantage and benefit to their communities deserve everyone's respect. Even in retiring, his focus on the importance and strength of family is an important contribution to the public discourse. We wish him health and continued strength and courage as he closes out his distinguished service in the U.S. Senate.