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

ICT: The National Museum of the American Indian has been a goal of yours
for years. What does it feel like to have a hand in that achievement?

Campbell: The bill for the National Museum of the American Indian was just
- I was just honored to be able to carry that on the House side. But the
section that I really dealt with, I mean I held the bill up until it was to
tribes' satisfaction, was the section that required the Smithsonian to
start returning skeletal remains. And that dovetailed right in with NAGPRA
[the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act] ... It was a
good thing. And of course, being down on that Mall, participating in the
grand opening, it was like, as Paul [moore-head] sometimes says, completing
the circle. I even woke up one night, you know I have dreams, I rarely
remember when I wake up. But I woke up with the darnedest feeling that I
had a dream that I was sent back here to do that. You know? Maybe I was.

Anyway, it was a long time coming. It's beautiful. We've had a few people,
Indians, grinch around about it. A few of our Navajo friends thought that
they should have had a lot more elevated stature in the opening because
they were the biggest tribe. But you know I don't set that up. I mean I
think that all tribes are equal, regardless of the size of the numbers. And
we had a few people that are a little more on the militant side complain
that the museum was not more like the Holocaust Museum, that it wasn't
telling the history of the tragedy of Indian people. I think, however, that
they wanted to get off to sort of a positive upbeat start, and there will
be a time for that. Because they're going to have lots of seminars and
speakers. This is a living museum. We don't want to warehouse pots and
baskets, we want this thing to be able to tell a story. And the whole story
will be told, in time. They're going to do that. They're going to do it.
You've gotta give them a little time.

So going home this is my last coup. I'm really, really proud of that
museum. It's just beautiful.

I had Pablita Abeyta, who was my staffer ... when I was on the House side
carrying that bill. She's now assistant to the director down there. She was
kind of giving me a private tour. We were in that big room [The Potomac].
There's a window in one side, a long kind of window that's got glass going
like this, and it refracts light that comes through, and it shows as a
rainbow on the other side. And I was watching that, and I said to Pablita -
she was telling me what a beautiful rainbow - I said it really is. I said
this is kind of the end of the rainbow for Indian people. And she said no
Senator, this is the beginning of the rainbow. And she's right. It really
is. It is. And a beautiful symbol, you bet. It is the beginning. Beginning
for a new era, in keeping with a lot of the old prophecies that I've heard,
handed down, you know about the resurgence of the red people, or the
rebirth of the red people.

ICT: One of the best-known episodes in your career was your change of
parties, from Democrat to Republican. Why did it make sense for you to
cross the aisle?

Campbell: A lot of people don't know that when I changed parties, there
were already 10 Republicans serving, right now, on the floor of the Senate
with me, who used to be Democrats. So it wasn't a big deal. I didn't see it
as a big deal. So many of them had already changed. But from an Indian
sense, it's lucky for Indian country that I did change. As simple as that.

Some of my own relatives on the Cheyenne reservation were a little bit
upset with me when I changed. And then after I became the chairman [of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs] and got so much done, they're saying
'Boy, good thing you did change.' Because I never would have been the
chairman [as a Democrat, with the Republican majority in the Senate controlling committee chairmanship]. Which means a lot of these bills, like
this [latest] one [the American Indian Probate Reform Act of 2004],
probably never would have gotten through. Because there wouldn't have been
that knowledge about the problem or the sensitivity, or being able to be a
direct conduit from Indians to the Senate. So it's probably a good thing I
did.

I've been the first person of Native American ancestry to chair that
committee. I've been very, very proud of that. But we've got the records
and we've passed more legislation, in this last eight years that I've been
chairman, than any time in the history of the country. I just don't think I
could have done that. As a Republican, a chairman, majority side of the
aisle, with a Republican administration, it gave me a lot more access and I
think much easier to get the momentum going to move bills. This [probate reform] was an example. I could call the other chairman on the House side
[Rep. Richard Pombo, R-Calif., chairs the Resources Committee in the House
of Representatives], and talk to him on a first-name basis and say "jeez, I
really need this, this is an important bill." And the thing was bogged down
- he broke it loose. I couldn't have done that on the other side of the
aisle. So it was a blessing in disguise for Indian country.

Now there was a philosophical difference. I didn't have any problem with
the - say the leadership on the Democratic side. Tom Daschle's a really
good friend of mine, Harry Reid is - a lot of people don't know this but I
was the deciding vote, my last vote in caucus as a Democrat, I was the
deciding vote that gave Tom Daschle the [Senate minority party] leadership
over Chris Dodd. So we've always been pretty close and I think the world of
him.

But there is a philosophical difference and I've noticed it more and more
since I changed. And basically it's this: I've found that there are caring
people on both sides of the aisle who want to help Indians, and the
problems Indian people have. The basis for the Democrats is, though, if
we're going to help Indians we need to expand our programs to help Indians.
The Republicans, they think what we need to do is help Indians help
themselves, not just help Indians, because it simply makes them more
dependent. I really believe in sovereignty. But to me it's an oxymoron. You
can't have total sovereignty and total dependency at the same time. You
can't be sovereign and dependent. I mean it just doesn't fit. You're either
your own person and make your own decision and make your own way and do
everything, or you've got an umbilical cord to somebody else to provide
everything. It just doesn't fit what I think Indians are all about. I don't
think any of them want to be dependent on anybody if they can get away from
it. And yet they find themselves, under Democratic administrations,
becoming more dependent. I call it forced dependency ...

That's what Republicans are all about. They want to help Indians become
self-reliant. Nobody wants to do away with the trust responsibility. We
know the federal government has an obligation. And all the Indian people
know the feds have an obligation to do certain things. That's what the
unfortunate forced tradeoff was when they took away their land. They
promised to do certain things. If you're really a strong nation, you've got
to honor your commitments. They have a commitment. But it doesn't do Indian
people any good to stay dependent. That was a basic difference of
philosophy that I found.

ICT: What message do you have for Indians regarding political involvement?

Campbell: You know, it's just very simply - don't give up. It's
frustrating, it's time-consuming. Don't give up.

We can track many instances in American history when history was changed by
one vote. Women got the right to vote in America because of one person. He
was a state legislator in the state of Tennessee, and that was the last
state to ratify that constitutional change. They had a deadlocked vote ...
and then one state representative in Tennessee changed his vote. And that
vote gave women the right to vote nationwide. And by the way the opponents
chased him down the hall, out the window, he climbed to a ledge until the
police could get him out of there. And afterward they asked him, why did
you change your vote. He said my mother told me to do the right thing.
[laughter]

But from an Indian standpoint - you know, when my Native Alaskan friends
come in sometimes, and they're complaining about this and that and the
other, I remind them that they are Americans, not Russians, because of one
vote. If one vote had gone the wrong way, the other way, in the U.S.
Senate, Alaska would still belong to Russia. And I ask them would you
rather be Russian or American ... American! Anybody would say that. Who the
heck wants to be a Soviet when you can be an American? Well one person did
that. And so sometimes as a private citizen you can't track if your vote
was the one that changed history. You've gotta keep the faith.

And I've recommended to a lot of tribes in fact that if they want to get
their voting registration up, and more people to vote, they need to change
their tribal elections to the same day as the general elections. Because
what happens is when tribes vote for their tribal council, they'll have a
90 percent turnout in some cases. And then in November, when they have the
general election, they'll have a 10 or a 15 percent turnout. Seems to me if
they did it the same day, they'd get more involved in county politics and
city politics and federal politics and so on ... Some have by the way,
there have been two or three tribes that have done that, but most of them
still don't.

That's one thing. And the second thing I would tell them is don't be taken
for granted. There was a time in this country when, the two-party system,
the Dems took them for granted, the Republicans didn't know they were
alive. Not anymore. It's beginning to change. Both parties have outreach
programs to Indian tribes because they know Indians in at least five states
can actually turn the tide of events for a national election. Al Gore beat
Bush [in the 2000 presidential election] in New Mexico by what, 500 votes?
Three hundred sixty-six votes. There's thousands of Indians in New Mexico
... Now South Dakota, Daschle and [Sen. Tim] Johnson both will tell you, it
was Indians who put 'em over the top ... And you know, when you have a
divided Senate, where one vote in the Senate counts, that means if you
follow that down two or three layers, Indians could have controlled the
United States Senate.

They were, in my estimation, largely responsible for changing the seat that
Slade Gorton once had. They really got incensed about him and I think they
really went to bat for his opponent [Sen. Maria Cantwell.] So they've
proven a time or two they can really change history if they want to get
involved. Voting is power, simple as that.

I think more and more Indian people are getting active, and recognizing the
importance of being involved ... When I first ran I remember having some of
my militant friends tell me - why do you want to run for a government that
took away our land? Well, fact is it's the only game in town. Nobody's
getting on the boats and going back to Europe or wherever they came from.
They're here. And many Indians are like me, they're mixed. You know you
can't go through that war over and over again. And this sort of, in your
face kind of tactics that militants use - burn it down, protest, do all
that - I suppose that's good theater, and maybe draws attention a little
bit to the problem, but it doesn't feed one kid. It doesn't get heat in a
hogan of one little old lady on the Navajo reservation that's cold in the
winter.

And so when they ask me I tell 'em you've gotta get involved, and you've
got to use diplomacy, you've got to use education as a tool, you've got to
try to find a dialogue with some consensus to make things go forward. And
frankly I think I learned a lot of that thinking from Martin Luther King,
who believed that you could make massive social change through non-violent
measures. Native people could learn a lot from the black community and the
Hispanic community, who has already learned years ahead of us about how you
can wield political clout and social change without just resorting to
"putting on the paint" as we say. More and more Indians I think are
recognizing that and are trying that.

The other thing I'd recommend too is to get more involved with their own
senator. You know, back here [in Washington] I've been the - sort of the
go-to guy. For everything! By getting elected I inherited a national
constituency. If it wasn't for Paul and a great staff, I couldn't begin to
keep up with all the requests. We have them every day. And I didn't get the
staff or the resources in terms of money to be a national office. But you
know, we do it because we feel we've got to. If not us who, you know? But I
always encourage them to work with their own senators, their own
congressmen, to at least let them know they're there, and they're gonna be
involved. And so in that respect I think I'm probably ... a kind of a
conduit to their own senator in a lot of respects.

ICT: What last word on tribes would you leave with your colleagues in the
Senate?

Campbell: To Democrats, don't take them for granted. And to Republicans,
they are a new awakening giant in politics. Not because they have a lot of
numbers like the Hispanic community and the black community, but through
activism in those states, through that ripple effect. You know, if you can
control the Senate race in that state you may control the whole Senate. Or
if you control the state you may control the electoral whatever - puts one
guy over the top or the other one in the electoral college. So Indians can
have a lot of clout ... That's why I call them an awakening giant in clout
if not numbers.

And then too, clearly they've learned how to get involved in lobbying.
Sometimes the hard way, i.e. Abramoff and Scanlon. But they are recognizing
if they can get back here and talk for themselves, that's the best. If they
can't they need to hire somebody that can be here to speak for them, and
knows the intricacies and, you know, the maze of stuff to go through to get
bills passed. What happened with Abramoff and Scanlon, that's on the
learning curve unfortunately ... After we get done with these hearings,
once it's out in Indian country - which is a small community, everybody
knows everything in Indian country, the moccasin grapevine it's called -
many tribes will be much more careful, and have much more oversight of the
people that they hire to speak for them back here.