Ben Nighthorse Campbell

(Native Americans: A Comprehensive History)

Article abstract: Elected to the U.S. Senate in 1992, Ben Nighthorse Campbell was successful in the jewelry business before winning elective office in Colorado.

Ben Campbell is the son of Portuguese immigrant Mary Vierra and Albert Valdez Campbell, of Scottish-Mexican descent; his paternal grandmother is said to have been Yellow Woman, a Southern Cheyenne. He was entered on the Northern Cheyenne tribal roll in 1980.

After stints as a U.S. Air Force military policeman during the Korean War, a San Jose State University student, and a member of the 1964 U.S. Olympic judo team, Campbell taught martial arts near Sacramento.Thereafter, he married, worked as a shop teacher, moonlighted in law enforcement, and began making jewelry with American Indian motifs. In 1970, he first announced his identity as a “closet Indian” and took the name “Nighthorse.” In 1977, with his jewelry business an established success, Campbell and his wife moved to a ranch near Durango, Colorado. They raised quarter horses and opened a gallery to display and sell his work. Campbell had become a millionaire by 1980.

Campbell was elected to the Colorado state legislature in 1983 and served until 1986. He was also an adviser to the Colorado Commission on International Trade and the Arts and Humanities. He was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1987. During his time in the House he was a member of the House Committee on Agriculture and the Committee on Interior and Insular Affairs. He was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1992; Campbell was the first Native American since Charles Curtis to be elected to the U.S. Senate.

In 1995, Campbell switched from the Democratic Party to the Republican Party, and three years later, he was reelected to the Senate as a Republican. As a legislator, Campbell has been a proponent of preserving public lands and natural resources. In 2001, he succeeded in having the site of the 1864 Sand Creek massacre of Cheyenne in eastern Colorado designated a national historic site. Citing health problems, Campbell announced in March, 2004, that he would not seek reelection to the U.S. Senate.

Further Reading

Edmunds, R. David, ed. The New Warriors: Native American Leaders Since 1900. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2001.

Viola, Herman J. Ben Nighthorse Campbell: An American Warrior. New York: Orion Books, 1993.