Rites of Victory
11/30/1992 at 01:00 AM EST
AS NIGHT DEEPENED, THE NEW U.S. SENATOR, HIS HAIR KNOTTED IN A ponytail, led the ceremonial dance, circling with scores of other people in celebration of a victory 116 years in the making—a just name for one of America's most famous historical sites. "This was the only battlefield I've ever heard of being named after the loser," observed Ben Nighthorse Campbell after a Veterans Day ceremony at what had been known until recently as the Custer Battlefield National Monument in southeastern Montana. After three years of lobbying, much of it on Campbell's part, the site is now the Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument, recognizing the Native American name for the site where Sioux and Cheyenne warriors triumphed over Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer's Seventh Cavalry on June 25, 1876. Says Campbell, whose great-grandfather Black Horse, a Cheyenne, fought at Little Bighorn: "Now I feel I am welcome here."
Soon, Campbell, 59, will be welcomed somewhere else—to an august and exclusive club. In January the Colorado Democrat will take his seat as the junior Senator from that state and as the first American Indian to serve in the Senate since 1929. At the very least, Campbell's arrival heralds a sartorial shake-up in the Senate. He is an award-winning jewelry designer who favors cowboy boots and silver bell buckles that he makes himself, eschewing traditional cravats for western-style bolo ties.
As his three terms in the House of Representatives have shown, however, Campbell is a strong mix of style, substance and complexity. His pro-choice views may offend conservatives, but Democratic leaders are equally distressed by his opposition to gun control and support for a constitutional amendment to ban flag-burning. Says Campbell: "I always say that if I have the right and the left both mad at me, then I must be doing something right."
Campbell has also angered a few Native Americans. Wearing full tribal regalia, he rode his horse War Bonnet in the last Rose Bowl Parade in front of a descendant of Christopher Columbus—infuriating radical elements of the American Indian Movement, which believes that the explorer's arrival eventually led to the annihilation of the Indian nations. Campbell says he had gotten the parade go-ahead from chiefs across the nation, adding. "You can't keep hate alive."
Campbell's path to the Senate was an epic one, coursing through a traumatic childhood and a difficult youth. He was born in Auburn, Calif., the son of Albert Campbell, a full-blooded North Cheyenne, a chronic alcoholic who worked only sporadically. His mother, Mary, a Portuguese immigrant, was afflicted with tuberculosis and spent much of her life in hospitals. The unstable situation forced young Ben and his older sister, Alberta (who died in 1974 of an overdose of pills and liquor), to shuttle between sister homes and orphanages. "My dad, when he was sober, was a good guy...but he'd go on these terrible binges," says Campbell. "Sometimes we would have to turn over drunks in Sacramento on skid row to find out which one he was."
The hard times forced Mary to make some heartbreaking sacrifices. "I remember being so damn poor," recalls Campbell, "that my mother would split a can of peas between my sister and me. She didn't eat anything. All she had was the juice from the bottom of the can."
Campbell spent the 1950s partly in the Air Force and partly earning a degree in education at San Jose State University—which he paid for by working as a migrant fruit picker and a truck driver. During this time he also pursued his passion for judo—moving to Tokyo to study the martial art for four years. "I trained five hours a day, six days a week," he says. "I broke my nose nine times and knocked out two teeth." The hard work paid off, though. Campbell won a gold medal at the 1963 Pan Am Games and captained the U.S. Olympic judo team at the 1964 Tokyo games.
It was judo too that led him to Linda Price, a rancher's daughter from Montrose, Colo. In 1966 she signed up for a judo course Ben was offering in Sacramento and found her-self attracted—to his feel. "In judo you don't wear shoes," she says. "His feet were great—long and perfect. I was kind of amazed." She became his third wife, on July 23, 1966. (Campbell's first marriage was annulled; his second ended in divorce.)
Campbell went on to build up a business creating American Indian jewelry, winning more than 200 design awards for his handcrafted rings, bracelets and pendants. In 1977, Ben and Linda moved with son Colin, now 23, and daughter Shanan, 22, to raise horses on a 120-acre ranch on the Southern Ute Indian Reservation near Ignacio, Colo. (pop. 720). About this time, Campbell made several trips to Montana to explore his North Cheyenne roots, and he adopted the name Nighthorse in 1980. Five years later he was inducted into the tribe's Council of 44 Chiefs.
Campbell's entry into politics was accidental. In 1982 he walked into a local Democratic Party meeting in Ignacio to speak on behalf of a friend who was running for sheriff, and found himself drafted as a candidate for the slate House of Representatives when no one else wanted to run. To everyone's surprise, Campbell beat his better-known opponent. Four years later he won his first term in Congress by a comfortable margin. There was nothing easy about his Senate victory, though; it followed a nasty campaign. Each candidate delivered slinging personal attacks and called the other a liar in ad campaigns. His Republican opponent, Terry Considine, "has still not called to concede the election or congratulate me," adds Campbell.
During Senate breaks, Campbell vows to indulge his passion for jewelry design. "If I had to choose between politics and art," he says, "I'd give up politics in a minute." Still, Campbell won't be shy about making his presence and ethnic pride felt in Washington. On Jan. 20 he will don a $40,000 tribal headdress and fly in War Ronnet from his Colorado ranch for the political gala of the year—Bill Clinton's Inaugural Parade.
VICKIE BANE in Ignacio