Helping Yourself and Your Community

Through Education

Written by Senator Ben Nighthorse Campbell for College Outreach USA Students


f you are reading this article, you have a unique opportunity, and I challenge you to accept it – to participate in a very special program – a program that may very well change the direction of your life. Your decision about whether to accept this challenge could have far reaching effects on the quality of your life, your family, your tribe, and perhaps society overall.

The purpose of College Outreach USA is to help identify young people who are interested in pursuing a college education by helping them stay in school and assisting them in achieving the goal of going on to college. By participating in this program, you will be offered help in selecting a college, going through the admissions process, and wading through financial aid and other forms. Most importantly, the colleges in this magazine want you to know that you are welcome at their institutions, and if you want to obtain a college education, they will be there to help. What an incredible opportunity! 

You may be asking yourself, “Why do I need to start worrying about my college education now, and what difference will a college degree make anyway?” An education will give you the ability and power to make wonderful changes. Perhaps, if I tell you about myself and the important role education has played in my life you can understand what I mean. 

My beginnings were very humble. My father had left the Northern Cheyenne reservation when he was a young man and, when he got out of the service, he met and married my mother, a Portuguese immigrant. Unfortunately, my mother became ill when I was just a child and spent 22 years in the hospital. My father was unable to really provide for me, and I spent much of my younger years growing up in the streets around Sacramento, California. My father, God-bless him, meant well, but as many Indian people do, he suffered from alcoholism. 

I remember distinctly the moment I decided I could and would do better than my father. I watched, powerless, as he was hit over the head with a bottle. As I stood there watching him in pain and bleeding from his wound, I vowed to myself to get an education and to make something of myself. I knew I didn’t want to end up like my dad. So I literally have come up from the streets to the halls of Congress by determining to get an education, to work and to contribute to society – to make this world a better place for all people. 

That journey though, from Sacramento to Washington, D.C., took many, many years. I struggled to get through San Jose State University on the education benefits that I earned from serving in the United States Air Force.

My education did not come easy. I’ve worked almost any job that you can name and was fortunate that I was interested in my physical well-being, as well as my mental well-being. I worked to get my body strong, and found that I really liked martial arts. I even went so far as to spend four years in Japan studying Judo.

It was in Tokyo that I became interested in making jewelry, which later became my livelihood. My commitment to Judo paid off, and I was very honored to participate in the 1964 Olympic Games.

Many times I felt defeated, and I wondered if I could really make it. But I was able to overcome those feelings of defeat, and the more that I learned and then applied my new skills, the more I knew I could succeed. Now that I have achieved some level of success, I want to encourage each and every one of you reading this story to take up the challenge to make your life better by making the commitment to apply yourself in your studies and begin believing that you can go to college and make the world a better place in the future. As a former Olympic Team member, I used to think my goal should be how much I could lift up. Now I know it should be how many I can uplift.

The need for Indian people trained to work in various professions is urgent. We need doctors, dentists, nurses and administrators to help provide health services. We need good teachers to help our youth become strong and educated. We need engineers and natural resource specialists to help protect our land, air and water. We need lawyers to help guarantee the freedoms we enjoy and achieve new ones. We need artists, writers, musicians and poets to help continue the richness of Indian art and culture. We need historians, anthropologists, and, most important, more congress people and senators. The talents that the Creator has bestowed upon you are a gift and to show the Creator your appreciation for your gift, it is incumbent on you to use those gifts and to give back to others by expressing yourself through your unique talents. Don’t waste them!

But let me caution you about the importance of remembering who you are, and where you came from and keeping the traditions and values that have sustained Indian people from time immemorial. I make a special point to return to Lane Deer, Montana, once or twice a year and visit with the Northern Cheyenne people there. I love putting on my Indian clothes to dance at pow-wows, tearing into a nice, but oh so greasy, piece of fry-bread to eat with my corn soup or sharing a good joke with my friends. But I also respect the sacred ceremonies and places that Indian people hold in such reverence. I am aware of the great sacrifice my tribe and people have paid in the past enabling me to be what I am today. Being an American Indian is not something to be ashamed of, it is an element that can make you strong and help you in your darkest moments by remembering the people who came before you and how they were sustained through all their trials and tribulations.

Many of you may be growing up in environments similar to the one in which I grew up. Perhaps some of you live on reservations with your family or extended family, or maybe you live in a city away from your tribe and family, or at a boarding school. No matter where you are starting from, I want to encourage you to think big and imagine the future you would like to have for yourself. As one famous philosopher, Goethe, said, “Whatever you dream, follow it with action, because the boldness of action in making dreams come true has magic, a power and a genius in itself.”

You know it has been 500 years since Christopher Columbus first landed in the Caribbean, and encountered the native people there. While many people will be celebrating this event, you and I both know that it has been a very tough 500 years for Indian people. Many people thought we would not survive. But we have survived, and American Indians and their proud cultures are now flourishing.

I have often spoken of an Indian renaissance, and I really do think the opportunity is there for Indian people to continue making sizable contributions. It is up to you to do this, because each person can and does make a difference if they decide to contribute their gift. It is important for all people that Indians as caretakers of this great Turtle Island now known as North America, with their unique and wonderful lifeways, to continue to inhabit these aboriginal homelands and hold our place in the natural world.

Ben Nighthorse Campbell was the senior Senator from the State of Colorado. He served on the Appropriations Committee, the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, the Veterans’ Affairs Committee, was Chairman of the Committee on Indian Affairs, and was a Member and the Chairman of the Helsinki Commission. His achievements reflect his highly diverse interests. He is a renowned jewelry designer, rancher and trainer of champion quarter horses. Senator Campbell is one of 44 chiefs of the Northern Cheyenne Tribe. After leaving the Senate, he joined the Law office of Holland & Knight as a senior policy advisor.