Matter of Opinion 6/1996

It's A Matter Of Opinion

by elmer m. savilla
June 1996

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 exception.

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 election year.

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 issues.

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 tea?

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 yet.

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 race.

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 rebel.

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.

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