As a result of his election on November 3, 1992, Ben Nighthorse Campbell (born 1933) of Colorado be came the first Native American to serve in the U.S. Senate in more than 60 years. A member of the Northern Cheyenne Tribe, Campbell was also a renowned athlete and captained the U.S. judo team for the 1964 Olympics in Tokyo.
Ben Nighthorse Campbell was born in Auburn, California, on April 13, 1933, to Mary Vierra, a Portuguese immigrant, and Albert Campbell, a Northern Cheyenne Indian. He had a hard childhood, with a mother frequently hospitalized for tuberculosis and an alcoholic father. Indeed, by the time he turned ten years old Nighthorse had spent half of his life in St. Patrick's Catholic Orphanage in Sacramento, California. At home there was frequently no one to care for him or his younger sister, Alberta. As a result, the youngster spent much of his time in the streets getting into trouble.
While working as a fruit picker in the Sacramento Valley, Nighthorse befriended some Japanese youths who taught him judo. That sport, according to the senator, "kept me off the streets and out of jail." After graduating from high school, he served in the U.S. Air Force from 1951 to 1953. Stationed in Korea as an Airman 2nd class, he continued with his judo training. On completing his military service, Campbell entered San Jose State University and supported himself by picking fruit and driving a truck. He still was a member of the Teamsters and proudly displayed his union card while a senator. In 1957 he received a Bachelors degree in physical education and fine arts. Upon graduation, Nighthorse moved to Tokyo for four years to work on his judo and study at Meiji University.
Campbell's ability in judo not only won him All-American status in that sport and helped him become three-time U.S. judo champion but allowed him to win the gold medal in the Pan-American Games in 1963. The next year he captained the U.S. judo team at the Tokyo Olympics. Later, the Olympian coached the U.S. international judo team.
Although Campbell worked as a teacher, policeman, and prison counselor, as well as a farm laborer and a truck driver, his success came as a designer of Native American jewelry. He had been interested in this Indian art form since his childhood, but learned how to laminate different metals in Japan. Although traditionalists argued that this technique did not follow the style of Indian art, Arizona Highways recognized his creativity in a 1972 article that identified him as one of twenty Native Americans undertaking new forms of art. He won more than 200 design awards for his handcrafted rings, bracelets, and pendants. Some of his work has sold for as much as $20,000. In 1977 Campbell moved to a 120-acre ranch on the Southern Ute Indian Reservation near Ignacio, Colorado. With his wife, Linda Price Nighthorse (Campbell's third marriage), and their two children, Colin and Shana, Campbell trained champion quarter horses on the ranch until a severe injury, incurred while breaking a colt, put an end to that career.
Nighthorse's involvement in politics came about because of bad weather. Unable to fly his single-engine airplane to the West Coast to deliver some jewelry due to heavy storms, he visited a meeting of Colorado Democrats seeking a candidate for the state's 59th House District. At that meeting Democratic leaders persuaded him to run for that office. To nearly everyone's surprise, he defeated his better known opponent and served in the state legislature for four years. In 1986 voters of Colorado's 3rd Congressional District, a normally Republican district, elected Democratic Campbell to the U.S. House of Representatives. He defeated incumbent Mike Strang in a closely fought election to become only the eighth Native American ever elected to Congress. He won reelection to that post three times by large margins.
In Congress he earned a reputation for having a "straight-shooting approach," and his charm, sincerity, charisma, and political blend helped him gain support from a wide variety of factions within and outside Congress. Although a strong fiscal conservative (he supported a balanced-budget amendment), he was a liberal on social issues (strongly pro-choice). As a congressman he served on the House Committees on Agriculture and on Interior and Insular Affairs. He played an important role in securing legislation to settle Native American water rights, and in 1991 he won a fight to change the name of Custer Battlefield Monument in Montana to the Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument, in honor of the Native Americans who died in battle. He also initiated and guided through Congress legislation to establish the National Museum of the American Indian within the Smithsonian Institution.
After six years in the House of Representatives, Campbell decided to run for the Senate seat vacated by Tim Wirth, a liberal Democrat who declined to run for a second term. He defeated Josie Heath and former Governor Dick Lamm in the Democratic primary. And on November 3, 1992, after a nasty campaign, he bested Republican state senator Terry Considine, a conservative, for the Senate. That victory made him the first Native American to serve in the U.S. Senate in more than 60 years. In that office he almost always supported the programs of the Clinton administration.
On March 3, 1995 Campbell made a decision which shocked much of the political world. He decided to change from his political affiliation from the Democratic to the Republican party. It has been stated that the balanced budget amendment persuaded Campbell to change his political views. Campbell will serve the remainder of his six year term as a Republican.
Further Reading on Ben Nighthorse Campbell
There are several good articles with excellent biographical data on Campbell. For instance, see "Big Ben," by Harland C. Clifford, in the Boston Globe Magazine (August 2, 1992). Also see a profile of him in the April 6, 1992, issue of People magazine.