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Senator Ben Nighthorse Campbell; A retrospective interview and a look ahead; PART ONE

WASHINGTON - The afternoon of Oct. 7 found Senator Ben Nighthorse Campbell
packing up his office. Exactly 12 hours after the Senate sent his bill to
reform Indian land inheritance practices to President George W. Bush for a
signature, Campbell was sorting belongings and memorabilia into three
separate groups, one to go with him, one to stay, and one for donation to
Fort Lewis College in Durango, Colo. The college has a large Indian
enrollment and has graduated Campbell's own sons. After 22 years in the
U.S. House of Representatives and the Senate, the Colorado Republican and
Northern Cheyenne tribal member retires from office following the current
108th Congress. With chief counsel Paul Moorehead on hand from the Senate
Committee on Indian Affairs (which Campbell chairs) and communications
secretary Kate Dando from his Senate office, Campbell made time for a
lengthy interview with Indian Country Today.

Indian Country Today: After 22 years in national political office, can you
give us a few of your personal highlights? Any major frustrations?

Campbell: Every bill we've got passed and signed into law for Indian people
has been just a thrill for me to do, because I know it's going to make
their life a little better. We've had bills dealing with sovereignty, for
economic development, strengthening tribal courts, employment,
strengthening compacts, water rights, you name it. And every one of them is
important to somebody in Indian country.

About personal highlights, to me they're really kind of, maybe twofold. One
is in the memorable accomplishments, and that would be under the heading of
legislation I suppose. But the memorable events are a little different. The
things I'll kind of remember aren't necessarily just the bills. You
mentioned me going on the floor [of the Senate, following the Sept. 21 opening of the National Museum of the American Indian]. That was the first
time in the history of America anybody's appeared, any Indian person has
appeared on the floor in tribal dress, they tell me ... That's a memorable
thing for me.

And when we, last summer when Paul and I were up in Montana and unveiled
the Indian memorial at the Custer battlefield, that was really memorable.
Memorable - that to me is something that really emotionally moves me,
because there was something special in it. It might not have been a big
thing from a legislative standpoint, but I really believe in symbolism. And
one of the reasons is because I think in this country, symbolism is
something that binds people, spiritually, and gives them direction. And
that's what the Liberty Bell and the Statue of Liberty and the American
flag are all about - they symbolize a nation of people, they symbolize
freedom, they symbolize certain things for people. And there are things in
Indian country that are the same way. They really have stronger symbolic
value. They don't feed one person maybe, but they have a very strong
symbolic value that's so important for Indian people.

We didn't win 'em all back here ... We just got through the House
yesterday, on the way to the White House now, a very important bill [the American Indian Probate Reform Act]. Our staff worked like crazy on that,
and I had to make a bunch of personal calls on the House side to free it up
just as late as yesterday. But that's a really important bill. Not only
because it's going to put 400 million dollars into that, but it's important
because it's [trust land fractionation] the seeds of the problem we've got
with the Cobell dispute. And I don't know for sure but I have a hunch if we
start putting some of that land back together, I should say if tribes start
putting it back together under this bill, it will certainly, maybe not
totally prevent but slow down any more potential of the kinds of lawsuits
that Cobell's all about. So it's a really important bill.

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And on the down side, you know when you're talking about frustrations -
Cobell has been one of my biggest frustrations. I don't care how many times
we've met, both the attorneys for the plaintiffs and for Interior too, we
just have not got them to moderate positions. But I have to tell you,
between the two, the plaintiffs have been much tougher to deal with. And
one of the reasons it's gotten so inflamed, was some of their rhetoric. [To
Paul Moorehead:] Did you happen to bring a copy of that latest statement
that that guy said? [On Oct. 4, according to the Gallup (N.M.) Independent,
plaintiff attorney Dennis Gingold told Navajo trust beneficiaries that
Interior Secretary Gale Norton is "worse" than General George Armstrong
Custer "and should be given the same treatment.]

When you say, basically in code words, that we oughta kill the Secretary of
the Interior, those are inflammatory if not a violation of federal law. In
fact we're going to meet about it this afternoon. I don't know what we're
going to do about it. But that's the kind of rhetoric that makes it almost
impossible to get people back to the bargaining table. You can't say that
about people! I don't know what the hell's the matter. Whacko! And you can
put that in there - I don't know if he's whacko or what to say things like
that. But it does not help the case. We just held off the Appropriations
Committee last year from taking it away from us, in the committee of
jurisdiction, and settling it right there with an appropriation rider. And
I just have a hunch that when I'm outta here, there's gonna be a movement
towards doing that. Just taking it away from everybody and settling the
thing in the Interior appropriations bill. Which none of us want. But
they're right on the edge of having that happening with this constant
digging in of heels, refusing to negotiate. I can't help but thinking one
of the reasons is the attorneys get paid by the hour. The longer they keep
the thing alive the more they're going to make, like the tobacco settlement
was. But it's not going to work that way once [Congressional] leadership
gets involved. They're apt to get a big surprise.

So that was one of my frustrations. The other big frustration I think in
the last few years has been our inability to move the energy bill out of
conference [conference committees attempt to reconcile differences between versions of a bill that pass the House of Representatives and the Senate].
We lost it last two years ago and looks like the thing is going to be so
deadlocked this year we can't get it out either, and there's a big section
for Indians involved in there, that was supported by CERT [Council of
Energy Resource Tribes], by numerous tribes, in fact even by NCAI until the
day before - in fact it was already - they changed their mind after the
thing was already in conference. But it's a good section. It's going to be
a section that allows tribes to provide thousands of jobs on reservations
for Indian people, developing their natural resources. Total voluntary, no
tribe has to participate. It's an absolute win both ways. They want to use
it - great, there's going to be lots of federal help there under their
direction, tribes' direction, if they want to. If they don't want to,
that's okay too. But unfortunately the thing has really bogged down a lot
over the question of ANWR [the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge], more than
anything else. I think that's the single thing that is holding it up.

So it looks like I'll be going out of office without that one getting
through. But I'm convinced that Senator McCain, who is coming in - he is,
Senator McCain, I've known him a long time, he's wonderful with Indian
issues. [John McCain, R-Ariz., will take over Campbell's chairmanship of
the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs if Republicans remain the majority
party in the Senate after the Nov. 2 elections.] But he is a bulldog when
it comes to getting things done. And I have a hunch that under his
leadership that Indian section will be maybe even stronger. I met with CERT
the other day in fact, and of course they were disappointed that it did not
get through, but they told me that even after I'm going they're going to
push like mad to get it in the next energy bill.

And I also think very frankly that Senator McCain is probably going to
knock some heads together on this Cobell issue too.

Some of the bills over the years too - you know although I wasn't the major
sponsor, I know Mo Udall was on the House side, but Indian Gaming
Regulatory Act of '88. I mean that bill went into effect, it's provided
tens of thousands of jobs for people, most of who are not Indians. But at
least Indians are in control of their own destiny with those casinos, and
that's why I'm a big supporter of them. It's getting tougher, because now
we're getting some backlash from some senators, including Senator Feinstein
[Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif.] as an example - thinks we've just got to stop
the proliferation of Indian casinos. And it's getting more difficult for
the tribes to negotiate with the states because states all have deficits
now. They conveniently forget that Indians at one time owned all that land
in their states. And now they all have deficits so they're trying to use
casinos to bail them out of their deficits, when most of them were even
opposed to a bill at all in 1988. So there's a - really a double standard
there. In fact we had one Indian testify. In fact it was the Southern Ute
chairman, Howard Richards. He testified to the [committee one day and he said, 'You know, they liked us better when we were poor.' In a way he's right, because then they can, you know, put salve on their guilt. But to really help Indians meaningfully, there's still some resistance out there to letting them up off their knees. So that [IGRA] was a big one.