On November 3, 1992, Ben Nighthorse Campbell was elected to the United States Senate as a Democrat from Colorado. He was the first American Indian to serve in the senate in sixty years. From 1987-92 he had represented Colorado's 3rd District, serving in the United States House of Representative. He also sat on the House Committees on Agriculture, Interior, and Insular Affairs. In 1995, he switched from the Democratic Party to the Republican Party.
In early 1992, Campbell wrote an essay titled “Reflections on the Quincentenary” for a symposium, marking the quincentenary of the arrival of Christopher Columbus in this hemisphere. In this essay, Campbell offers a useful overview of the history of American Indian culture from the time of Columbus.
Campbell does not gloss over the atrocities suffered by the native peoples at the hands of the Europeans: estimating that the native population of North America was approximately ten million before the arrival of Columbus, he says, “By 1900, the Indian population had dwindled because of imported disease, slavery, forced relocation, and outright genocide, to an estimated 100,000.”
Nevertheless, instead of insisting that the “intruding” peoples were somehow naturally addicted to total annihilation of the native people as some radicals, such as the self-proclaimed native Ward Churchill, have done, Campbell takes a more moderate position, stating, “Today, about two million people are enrolled members of recognized tribes and another ten million Americans claim some Indian ancestry. This revival of our people and traditions gives us cause to rejoice in 1992.”
Europeans and American Indians
The former senator makes it clear in his essay that there was a huge difference between the European culture that immigrated to North America and the native culture that had already been established here. He writes, “The invading culture viewed the native people as uncivilized innocents in need of religion, strange curiosities suitable for study, or murderous savages threatening settlements and westward expansion.”
It was from these perceptions of the native peoples that policies of the United States government were formed. Unless they chose to join the European-style cultures as, of course, some did, the native peoples were not considered part of the new country, and if they did not voluntarily accept assimilation, they were removed to reservations and in some cases killed. That is the sad history, bad enough as it is, and it needs no embellishment by Ward Churchill and his ilk.
Citizenship Act of 1924
Far from a policy of genocide, the United States government and people have always purposed goals of peaceful coexistence with the native peoples; thus “the Citizenship Act of 1924 made all non-citizen Indians born within the territorial limits of the United States citizens.” Then the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934 provided for tribal recognition with more independent governments.
According to Campbell, “the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s allowed Indian tribes to get their foot in the door and establish aspects of sovereignty.” He lauds President Johnson’s 1968 speech “The Forgotten Americans” for recognizing the plight of American Indians, and “In 1970, continuing this trend, President Nixon, in his State of the Union Address, issued a statement now regarded as the foundation of the current federal Indian policy of "self-determination.”
Campbell also cites some Supreme Court rulings that have been favorable to tribes in increasing their sovereignty. But he laments that the trend of the Court might not bode well for future tribal litigation. This was three years before Campbell himself deserted the liberal party for the conservative.
The former senator’s brief overview gives a useful glimpse of the history of the native and European clash of cultures. He does not put a happy face on the situation, but neither does he try to make it worse than it was and then claim it is worse that it is.
Ben Nighthorse Campbell’s “Reflections on the Quincentenary”