Matter of Opinion 6/1996
It's A Matter Of Opinion
by elmer m. savilla
Political Switch Hitter, What have you done lately?
The politics of poverty were not begun by Abraham Lincoln as
some believe, but for him it was an inescapable reality. He was
born in a log cabin as were millions of others so it was no big
deal at the time. But over the political years, as the population
became more and more well-to-do, a poor and uneducated man
succeeding in business or politics became more of a rarity and the
Enter from stage left, then right, one Benjamin (Ben)
Nighthorse Campbell, who is of Northern Cheyenne (of Montana)
Native American heritage. He joins a 200-year line of politicians
who claim to know all about the poverty and pain of the poor. This
claim seems to be the hallmark of crafty politicians who
desperately need to demonstrate that they feel the pain of others.
But let's put things into perspective in this important national
One of the purposes of this writing is to pose the question,
"At what point in one's career is one allowed to forget his roots?"
Or is this allowed at all?
Now a U.S. Senator, Campbell came to the U.S. Congress in 1987
courtesy of the Democratic voters of Colorado who apparently
believed he would make a difference in a disgraced Congress. In
November of 1992, feeling his oats, he ran for the U.S. Senate and
won. Nationwide, Native Americans cheered his election because as a
whole, they needed a champion, someone who understood their fight
for treaty rights and everything else that stems from their
original sovereignty. Ironically, the champions in the Senate have
been non-Indian: Senators Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, and John McCain,
R-Az, who have been extremely outspoken on behalf of Indian causes.
It wasn't long before Senator Campbell made it clear to Indian
tribes that he didn't have a Native American constituency to
protect and that he only held an allegiance to those in Colorado
who elected him. Presumably this meant only the non-Indians.
The senator's public affairs officer, Walt Dillard, recently
commented on some tribal leaders who had complained that Campbell
should be more pro-Indian affairs. Dillard said, "Well, if the
tribal leaders want to pay for more staff (in this office) to take
care of Indian matters we can address them, but we can't solve all
Indian problems. If they come by here and their concerns are
realistic, we will listen to them." Dillard didn't understand that
tribes have been "coming by" senate offices and have been "listened
to" (then promptly forgotten) for years.
Fair enough, but one would probably get the same remarks from
non-Indian senators from other states. So what does this prove? It
proves that in politics one's heritage means little. More than
anything it's what you can do to help their election or reelection
that gets their attention.
Time after time Campbell proved his disinterest in American
Indian affairs by a lack of rhetoric and positive actions on behalf
of Indian tribes, and yet in fact he has profited politically from
being able to connect himself with being an American Indian, A
question being raised is "Has he fulfilled his obligation to his
race?" If you ask--"what obligation?"--this writer is forced to
answer that it is the same obligation placed on other elected
Indian leaders who have been criticized by others when they are
accused of "selling out" to the non-Indian world, or is this not an
issue anymore? And, is it a matter of conscience, or a matter of
loyalty to one's race?
For instance, when the elected leaders of the Mescalero Apache
tribe sought to place a nuclear waste storage site on their
reservation they were criticized (privately) by almost the entire
Indian society for forgetting their roots and commitment to the
seventh generation. Then earlier when the two elected leaders of
two national Indian organizations had the audacity to have a secret
meeting with Sec. of Interior James Watt just before a joint
meeting of the two organizations where the actions of Watt himself
was to be discussed, those leaders were severely chastised and one
of them was asked to step down from his leadership. Granted,
Senator Campbell was not elected by an Indian-majority of voters,
but neither were Senators Inouye or McCain. So yes, it was natural
that Indian expectations were high for his support for Indian
Not long after his election to the Senate he forgot all about
his allegiance to those Colorado voters too, and without a twinge
of conscience abruptly defected to the Republican Party in March of
1995. Public affairs person Dillard was asked if Campbell had
deserted the Democrats who had elected him. Dillard replied that it
was the Republicans in Colorado who switched to the Independent
Party in order to vote for Campbell that got him elected, and not
the Democrats, so he really owed the Democrats nothing.
We asked Dillard, "What did Campbell get in return for his
defection?" "Better treatment across the board," he said. "The
Democrats resented the fact that he beat the popular Gov. Lamm out
of the Senate seat and at official functions he, Campbell, was
ambushed and shunned."
After he switched parties, Dillard said the Republican wives
held a "tea" for Mrs. Campbell as well as a "get-acquainted"
luncheon. One supposes that these type of social events are
important to a Senator--but we have to wonder where the Senator's
priorities lie. Could it be that he could be wooed back to the
Democrat's side with a few picnics or pow wows instead of a wimpy
We asked Dillard what the views of the senator were on treaty
rights and on the plenary power over Indian affairs that is claimed
by the Congress. In treaty rights issues, Dillard began by siting
the Senators involvement in getting the Animas-La Plata water
project completed for the benefit of Colorado's Ute Mountain Tribe
and the Southern Ute Tribe. This was not a treaty matter we said,
but instead was a local water rights settlement issue.
What of the original treaties of the 1800's, we persisted.
Dillard responded that "Senator Campbell believes in tribal
sovereignty but strikes a "delicate balance." This is political
talk for "No comment."
We then asked if the Senator thought the
congressionally-assumed plenary power over all of Indian affairs
was constitutional or not, Dillard said the issue has not come up
In a recent article in a national magazine Campbell was quoted
as saying that he doesn't "test the wind" before making a decision
but merely votes neither too far right or too far left, in order to do
what's best for the majority of the people. This kind of logic is
difficult to understand. What ever happened to "What's the right
thing to do?" I suppose the logic is that if you consistently vote
the middle of the road, you offend fewer people. Sometimes the
right thing to do is the hard thing to do.
Indeed, it is difficult to describe his political principles
and his agenda for moving anything except for the state of
Colorado. So far he has supported western mining interests, timber
cutting, and the interests of ranchers, the Republican
balanced-budget amendments and a cut in capital gains taxes, all
right-wing Republican principles, but he has not yet gone out on
any limb for Indian causes. Why should he, you ask? Well, for one
thing, he sits as a member of the Senate Committee on Indian
Affairs and there, we think, his partisanship and concern for
purely local matters should end in favor of a view more national in
scope of what's best for Native Americans.
It is said that Senator Campbell has a commitment to everyday
people, that when he listens to their troubles he is reminded of
his own hard times, of having no money to see a doctor, having to
go hungry, and having to make a living by loading trucks. So who of
our generation hasn't had to do this, or worse?
Many of us have experienced the pain of poverty but have not
been willing to give up our Indianness in return for a promise of a
better life. Campbell is no shining example of how to do things. By
his own admission, over the last thirty years he has held a number
of odd jobs and none of them was for the benefit of treaty rights
or tribal sovereignty.
It is time for him to move away from his middle of the road
positions which offends the fewest number of voters. He would gain
a lot of respect from Indians and non-Indians alike if he would
stand up for what he claims to be: a hard-working and a very
fortunate Native American politician.
A very similar situation came up recently in Washington, DC
when U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, an African
American who is a Republican with very outspoken views against
Affirmative Action for minorities and who also has very right-wing
conservative political views, was invited to attend and speak to an
awards program for a local eighth grade class.
A member of the School Board who is also black, objected to
having Thomas come to their school and speak because Thomas has
taken positions against the interest of blacks as a race and he
said Thomas was a product of affirmative action and should not
deprive those same opportunities for others, now that Thomas "has
his." I can appreciate that animus against Thomas and I believe
that Thomas has taken badly needed opportunities away from his own
Native Americans who are members of a federally recognized
tribe have had a form of affirmative action for over 100 years in
the form of legislation which specifically said that American
Indians would have a preference in employment, a preference in
selling supplies, and in contracting for services, with the Bureau
of Indian Affairs and in the Indian Health Service. Yet the
preference and opportunity was allowed to be eliminated by tribal
governments! During the developmental years of the 1980s, tribal
governments were encouraged to ask for exemptions for both the BIA
and themselves from the Indian preference requirement "because
Indians were not qualified to perform!"
We needed a champion then for Indian rights but none other than
myself could be found. I wound up in a heated argument with
then-Assist. Sect. for Indian Affairs, John Fritz, over this issue,
but tribal leader support was not to be had. So when we have
officials who sell out hard won rights like affirmative action and
Indian preferences, I find it encouraging to see the occasional
Without articulated principles and subsequent actions we
continue to be seen as being easily swayed by the winds of fortune
rather than as being committed to a cause.
A reminder, dear Senator: It's not the years spent in Congress
that counts. It's what you do while there that is important. I
believe that any Native American in the public eye has a
responsibility to the rest, if only because of our fewer numbers
and our professed brotherhood and concern for each other. If we
don't have that, we are like the rest of the pack.