Published on March 16, 2012 by Amy
Ben Nighthorse Campbell (born April 13, 1933) is an American politician. He was a U.S. Senator from Colorado from 1993 until 2005 and was during his tenure the only American Indian serving in the U.S. Congress. Campbell was a three term U.S. Representative from 1987 to 1993, when he was sworn into office as a Senator following his election on November 3, 1992. Campbell also serves as one of forty-four members of the Council of Chiefs of the Northern Cheyenne Indian Tribe.
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Originally a member of the Democratic Party, Campbell switched to the Republican Party on March 3, 1995. Reelected in 1998, Campbell announced in March 2004 that he would not run for reelection to a third term in November of that year. He expressed interest in running for Governor of Colorado in 2006. However, on January 4, 2006, he announced that he would not enter the race. His Senate seat was won by Democrat Ken Salazar in the November 2004 election.
Campbell was born Benny Campbell in Auburn, California. His mother, Mary Vierra (Vieira), was a Portuguese immigrant who had come with her mother to the U.S. at age six through Ellis Island, (according to Campbell, his maternal grandfather had entered the United States some time before.) There Vierra’s family settled in the large Portuguese community near Sacramento. When Mary Vierra contracted tuberculosis in her youth, she was forced to convalesce at a nearby hospital, often for months at a time during treatment. It was there that she met an American Indian patient Albert Campbell, who was at the hospital for alcoholism treatment. Albert Campbell was of predominantly Northern Cheyenne descent, but according to Nighthorse Campbell biographer, Herman Viola, Albert Campbell spent much of his youth in Crow Agency boarding school and may have had some Pueblo Indian and Apache Indian blood in his background as well. The couple married in 1929, and Campbell was born in 1933.
During Campbell’s childhood, his father continued to have problems with alcoholism, often leaving the family for weeks and months at a time. His mother continued to have health problems, with tuberculosis, a highly contagious disease that limited the contact she could have with her children and continued to force her into the hospital for long periods of time. These problems led to Ben and his older sister Alberta (who died in an apparent suicide at age 44) spending much of their early lives in nearby Catholic orphanages. As a young man, Campbell was introduced to the Japanese martial art of judo by Japanese immigrant families he met while working in local agricultural fields.
Campbell attended Placer High School, dropping out in 1951 to join the U.S. Air Force. He was stationed in Korea during the Korean War as an air policeman; he left the Air Force in 1953 with the rank of Airman Second Class, as well as the Korean Service Medal and the Air Medal. While in the Air Force, Campbell obtained his GED and, following his discharge, used his G.I. Bill to attend San Jose State University, where he graduated in 1957 with a Bachelor of Arts in Physical Education and Fine Arts.
He is listed as Ben M. Campbell in his college records and records of his Olympic competition, but was given the name “Nighthorse” when he returned to the Northern Cheyenne reservation for his name-giving ceremony, as a member of his father’s family, Blackhorse.
While in college, Ben was a member of the San Jose State judo team, coached by future USA Olympic coach, Yosh Uchida. While training for the Olympic Games, Campbell attended Meiji University in Tokyo, Japan as a special research student from 1960-1964. The Meiji team was world renowned and Campbell credited the preparation and discipline taught at Meiji for his 1961, 1962, and 1963 U.S. National titles and his gold medal in the 1963 Pan-American Games. In 1964, Campbell competed in judo at the 1964 Summer Olympics in Tokyo. He suffered an injury and did not win a medal.
In the years after returning from the Olympic Games, Campbell worked as a deputy sheriff in Sacramento County, California, coached the U.S. National Judo Team, operated his own dojo in Sacramento, and taught high school (physical education and art classes). He and his wife also raised quarterhorses, including a Supreme Champion and AQHA Champion, “Sailors Night”. They bought a ranch near Ignacio, Colorado on the Southern Ute reservation in 1978.
In the book “Ben Nighthorse Campbell: An American Warrior”, by Herman Viola, Campbell tells of learning to make jewelry from his father and flattening silver dollars on train tracks for the materials. He also used techniques learned from sword makers in Japan and other non-traditional techniques to win over 200 national and international awards for jewelry design under the name, “Ben Nighthorse” and was included in a feature article in the late 1970′s in ‘Arizona Highways’ magazine about Native artists experimenting in the ‘new look’ of Indian jewelry.
Campbell was elected to the Colorado State Legislature as a Democrat in November 1982, where he served two terms. Voted one of the 10 Best Legislators by his colleagues in a 1986 Denver Post – News Center 4 survey. Elected in 1986 to the U.S. House of Representatives, defeated incumbent Congressman Mike Strang. He won two succeeding re-elections to this seat. In 1989, he authored the U.S. House of Representatives bill HR 2668 to establish the National Museum of the American Indian, which became PL 101-185.
The early 1990s marked a turning point in Campbell’s political career. In 1992, following the announced retirement of Senator Tim Wirth, Campbell won a three-way Democratic primary with former three-term Governor Richard Lamm and Boulder County Commissioner Josie Heath, who had been the party’s nominee in 1990. During the primary campaign, Lamm supporters accused Heath of “spoiling” the election by splitting the vote of the party’s left wing. Heath’s campaign pointed out that it was Campbell who shouldn’t have been running, because his voting record in Congress had been much more like that of a Republican. This charge turned out to be prophetic. Campbell won the primary with 45% of the vote and then defeated Republican State Senator Terry Considine in the general election.
In March 1995, only two years into office, Senator Campbell switched parties from Democrat to Republican, in the wake of publicized disputes he had with the Colorado Democratic Party. Upon hearing the news, most of Senator Campbell’s staff in Washington quit on the spot.
In 1998, Senator Campbell won re-election by what was then the largest margin in Colorado history for a state-wide race. In the 106th Congress, he passed more public laws than any individual member of Congress. During his tenure, Campbell also became the first American Indian to chair the Senate Indian Affairs Committee. He retired from office in January 2005.
Today, Senator Campbell is a Senior Policy Advisor at the firm of Holland and Knight, LLP in Washington, DC. He also continues to design and craft his Ben Nighthorse line of American Indian jewelry.
In 1966, Campbell married the former Linda Price, a public school teacher who was a native of Colorado. The couple have two married children, Colin (Karen) Campbell and Shanan (John) Wells. They have four grandchildren. The Campbells still reside in Colorado.