Ben Nighthorse Campbell Essay - Critical Essays

Herman J. Viola

Ben Nighthorse Campbell

Native Americans, especially those who honor tribal traditions, find themselves in a difficult and ambiguous position in the contemporary United States. While their attempts to preserve their ancestral heritage are often received with confusion or even disdain by white Americans, mainstream success can bring distrust from fellow Indians. Rare is the person who can balance between these two dangers.

One is Ben Nighthorse Campbell, whose 1992 election made him the first Native American senator in sixty years. Typically, Campbell’s victory came only months after he had decided not to seek reelection to the House of Representatives. His entire life thus far has been such a series of dramatic turns, and Herman Viola’s quickly paced biography tells the story well.

Aptly subtitled AN AMERICAN WARRIOR, Viola’s biography traces Campbell’s story through a series of discoveries, beginning with judo, which imbued Campbell with self-discipline to the extent that he became captain of the American team in the 1964 Olympic Games. A second was Campbell’s artistic ability, which has led to the creation of jewelry in the Native American tradition of such high order that it is featured in museums. By far the most important discovery, however, was Campbell’s realization of his Indian heritage.

That journey is the most fascinating part of Viola’s book. It touches upon both the private, intimate moments of Campbell’s life and on the wider, sociopolitical meanings of the Native American Indian movement. BEN NIGHTHORSE CAMPBELL recounts one man’s many-faceted life, but it can also be read as a paradigm for wider changes in the American landscape. Read either or both ways, it is a compelling story.