NEW YORK, NY – Senator Ben Nighthorse Campbell, of the Cheyenne Tribe of Oklahoma, was one of 100 people honored with the NECO Ellis Island Medal of Honor Award at this year’s ceremonies on Saturday, May 12, 2008. The award recognizes Campbell as a powerful leader for his many years of distinguished public service to America as well as his unique position as a voice for Indian Country within the halls of Congress.
Campbell has ancestors from both Native America (Northern Cheyenne) and Immigrant America (Portuguese), and his honorable legacy is a merging of these two sometimes divergent realities. As a politician, he embodies a bridge between these two worlds. As a man, he symbolizes a powerful legacy of love and understanding for his country, and for his people.
Like all of the Ellis Island Medal of Honor awardees, Campbell is recognized for his achievements in the mainstream society, but he is also being acknowledged as a representative from Indian country, from Tribal America, and for what he represents to that vast and unique constituency. Senator Campbell has spoken out many times about the dual role he was compelled to play while serving in Congress.
On one hand, he did his job for the constituents of Colorado, those people up elected him to office. On the other hand, as the sole Native American person inside that circle of influence and power on Capitol Hill, Senator Campbell was, and still is, thought of as a voice for Indian Country at large.
Campbell was a U.S. Senator from Colorado from 1993 until 2005 and was for some time the only Native American serving in the U.S. Congress. Campbell was a U.S. Representative from 1987 to 1993, and he was sworn into office as a Senator following his election on November 3, 1992. He was only the third Native American to serve in the U.S. Senate in history. Campbell also serves as one of forty four members of the Council of Chiefs of the Northern Cheyenne Indian Tribe.
Campbell was the first person to address the Senate in full Indian regalia, white beaded buckskin, and full chiefs head dress contrasting against a sea of dark suits. His presence was a statement about the continuation of Native American tribes and their enduring cultural heritage. Campbell was instrumental in the establishment of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of the American Indian on the National Mall in Washington, DC. At the groundbreaking ceremony for the museum, he said, “No longer will Native American culture be bottled up in collections and hidden from so many people in the world who wish to share them.”
A New Step for NECO, the National Ethnic Coalition of Organizations
In keeping with their mission of holding up examples of individuals who do achieve the American Dream while maintaining their own cultural identity and heritage, NECO is including tribal America this year with their honoring of Senator Ben Nighthorse Campbell, and have stated their intention to continue this new tradition with the honoring of a Native American every year going forward. Cherokee Principle Chief Wilma Mankiller is the only other Native American to have received this honor, in 1997.
Executive Director Rosemarie Taglione stated that NECO intends to “build a bridge of honoring, of understanding, and of healing from communities of immigrant cultures and families to communities of indigenous tribal people living in America today,” starting in 2008 with the honoring of Senator Ben Nighthorse Campbell.
Established in 1986 by NECO, the Ellis Island Medals of Honor pay tribute to the ancestry groups that “comprise America’s unique cultural mosaic.” To date, more than 1,000 American citizens have received medals, including former Presidents Bill Clinton, George Bush, Ronald Reagan, Jimmy Carter, Gerald Ford, and Richard Nixon, Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court William Rehnquist, Muhammad Ali; Rosa Parks, Elie Wiesel, Frank Sinatra, Bob Hope, Her Excellency Sheikha Haya Rashed Al Khalifa, President of the 61st Session of the UN General Assembly; and Quincy Jones.
Ellis Island Medal of Honor recipients are selected each year through a national nomination process. Campbell was nominated by Kurt Luger, executive director of the Great Plains Indian Gaming Association, and New York businessman Bernard “Beau” Lange. Screening committees from NECO’s member organizations select the final nominees, who are then considered by the Board of Directors. Both the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives have officially passed resolutions recognizing the Ellis Island Medals of Honor, which rank among this country’s most prestigious awards. Each year, Ellis Island Medal of Honor recipients are listed in the Congressional Record, honoring those who have made enduring contributions to our nation and to the world.
NECO’s mission is “to create the world of the future today, by honoring our diverse past, advocating for positive change in the present, and building strong leaders for the future.” The foundation partners with a wide variety of organizations, both national and international. It supports diverse ethnic cultural events, sponsors life-saving surgery for children, assists emergency relief efforts worldwide, and produces educational materials and programs that mentor youth to become the leaders of tomorrow. NECO continues its long-standing commitment to Ellis Island, supporting the ongoing restoration of its educational facilities.
For a full list of the 2008 Ellis Island Medal of Honor Awardees, go to http://www.NECO.org.
Frmr. Senator Ben Nighthorse Campbell was one of the few featured speakers at the Ellis Island Medal of Honor Awards event in New York City, on Ellis Island on Saturday, May 12, 2008. The evening was a very patriotic event, with all branches of the the military represented in formation, in their dress uniforms. The event paid tribute to all of the awards winners with a salute and a rousing rendition of “God Bless America.”
Senator Campbell took this unique opportunity to educate the two thousand attendees, including many of New York’s elite, in a little bit of Indian history:
“As a former Air Force military man from the Korean War, I have to tell you I always have a wonderful feeling of elation and hope and pride when civic functions in America involve so much of our military men and women. Your presence is a constant reminder of how important they are to our freedom. One of my bills that I am most proud of that I passed the United States Senate was the bill that was signed by William Jefferson Clinton that authorized the black POW-MIA flag as a national symbol to be flown five times a year by all federal properties such as Ellis Island.
It was brought to my mind when Louis Zamperini (WWII veteran, Olympian, motivational speaker) came to the podium. It is extremely important that we do not forget their sacrifices.
I am delighted to be here. I might tell you since there are so many military people here tonight, that American Indian involvement in our military is almost patriotism beyond words, contrary to some of the old movies that exploited the Indian Wars of the American West in the 1800’s.
But the fact is, it was warriors of the Iroquois Confederacy who provided George Washington at Valley Forge with blankets and food, snuck them in in the middle of the night. It was American Indians who were with “Black Jack” Pershing when he chased Pancho Villa into Mexico, and with Teddy Roosevelt when he charged up San Juan Hill.
And, who now has not heard of the celebrated Code Talkers of WWII whose own language was the only code never broken by the Axis. So, certainly we have paid our dues. We have the highest volunteer enlistment per capita of any ethnic group in America.
I’m also delighted there are so many of my tribal brothers and sisters in the audience tonight. Some of them have come an awfully long way to help me celebrate and and I really appreciate them being here.
We’re called American Indians, but it’s almost interchangeable with Native Americans now, as you probably know. We even use it in mixed circles, although in our own circles we prefer our own tribal names. But you obviously know how we got that name, because poor Christopher Columbus was totally lost and stumbled upon our shores and thought he was in India, and we’ve had that name-fiver since.
And in a way, there’s sort of a distant connection between Christopher Columbus and myself. Many of you may not know that he was taught to sail by the Portuguese, my mother’s people, in the Azore Islands. And Christopher Columbus’ wife was an Azorean, she was Portuguese.
In 1992, I had the opportunity to spend some time with the 20th descendent on Christopher Columbus, his name is Cristobal Colon, and he is helicopter pilot with the Spanish Navy. We had a chance to compare his ancestry on the Portuguese side with my ancestry on the Portuguese side. We mused that maybe I had a connection to Christopher Columbus, too.
I sometimes get teased a little bit by my Indian relatives who question the wisdom of my Portuguese ancestor’s teaching Christopher Columbus to sail, and on the other side of that coin are people who can’t believe that we sold Long Island for a handful of beads. But we’re all here and we’re all in this whole thing together now, so we certainly must make the best of it, and we do.
My grand dad on my mother’s side stowed away on a ship to get to New York when they broke a rudder and stopped in the Azore Islands. He said the hardest part was living on the three loaves of bread and one gallon of water he brought on board with him for the trip.
But he made it here, got a job, saved some money and sent for his wife and the five kids. My mother was the youngest of those five, and was six years old when we came here. I think he shared in common what I saw last night and tonight among a lot of our recipients…he was of modest means, he believed in working hard, he was raised with a work ethic as so many of our immigrants are. He knew how to share success when he gained success, and above all, he had a dream.
So it’s kind of strange, I suppose, that my mother would grow up, coming to a country where dreams could be realized, and then marrying a man who came from a people whose dreams were literally shattered by that same exodus from other parts of the world. And they were almost as you probably know, if you’ve read our history, American Indians were almost literally an endangered species by the year 1900, but we have come back.
And contrary to many of the stories that are out there now about the success of Indian tribes, I’m sure you’ve read about some of the success of what we call the casino tribes. Believe me, they are in the minority. There are very few of them making what we might call “serious money,” and some of them are in this part of the Unites States, but most American Indians still face a lifestyle of poverty that is literally a third world country.
I heard the very good words of Mr. Butler speaking about all the children of the world who need our help, and I tell you, some of those children are in this country, and they are American Indians. If you go out on what we call hardcore reservations, they still face a seventy-five percent unemployment. Nationwide, if we get to five percent they think it’s some kind of a national calamity. Try seventy five.
We still have over fifty percent our people on some reservations who suffer from diabetes, partly because they have no money to buy food, and so they live on starchy government surplus things we call commodities. Cans with no labels that have been sent to them by the federal government. No fresh fruit, no fresh vegetables, low protein, you can imagine after years and years of that kind of a diet what it does.
Diabetes, of coarse, leads to bad circulation, then to gangrene, then to amputation, then to death. Over thirty percent of our teenage youngsters on some reservations have tried suicide in at one time in their life. Because too many of them feel that they live in a dead end hopeless atmosphere. Some of them we loose, unfortunately.
When I tell people that it is a matter of fact that the federal government spends more money per capita on rapists, killers and child molesters in our federal penitentiaries than we do through the Indian Health Service for our Indian kids, it’s hard to believe. But that’s a known fact. Senator Dorgan (U.S. Senator Byron Dorgan (D-ND), Chairman of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee), who now chairs the committee I used to chair, is trying desperately to do something about that issue.
Well, those things are tough, but some of us are trying desperately to make things a little better. And I think we’re doing it as we kind of soldier on, and many of those Indian leaders are in the audience today. We know that if we work hard enough we will make life a little better for our grand kids, than what our grandparents faced in boarding schools, and, in fact, in the face of genocide practices that were done in California and in some of the New England states. That’s where the name “Redskin” came from. As you probably know, it is a name we do not like. It was when people would turn in, during the French and Indian Wars, a bit of black hair or red skin, they would get a bounty.
I don’t know of any other American…even though there were terrible, tragic things that happened to Japanese Americans during WWII, and to Black Americans during the slave days. And so many discriminatory things have happened to Irish Americans, and to many others. But, I don’t know of any other people, in this great nation, who had a bounty put on them. Except us. We did.
Well I am really delighted to be here in the company of so many distinguished people, who have made this great nation greater. But I would hope that they would remember that there are still people from the first Americans who have not shared in the success of our newest Americans. Somewhere along the line I hope we will begin to realize that and rectify it, and become truly one people under God. Thank you.