As he approaches his 90th birthday, we talk to famed jewelry designer and former U.S. Senator Ben Nighthorse Campbell about overcoming a rough childhood to lead an accomplished life.
The best life stories aren't only about triumph — they're about trials and tribulations, too. The most memorable ones come down to what it means to make something beautiful out of something raw. Ben Nighthorse Campbell has one of those remarkable life stories.
Campbell, a member of the Council of Chiefs of the Northern Cheyenne Indian Tribe, on his horse, Scamp, in southwestern Colorado.
A renowned Southwestern jewelry artist and former U.S. Senator, Campbell has traveled many different paths in his long life, but the constants have always been art and family.
Born in 1993 in the small town of Auburn outside of Sacramento, California, he wasn't dealt the best hand to start. "I was born to a very dysfunctional home," Campbell says. "My mother has tuberculosis, and she was in and out of the hospital for 26 years with TB. My dad was an alcoholic and was here and gone off all the time."
He spent part of his early childhood in a Catholic orphanage and part in a ward for children of the ill in the hospital where his mother was being cared for. Despite these circumstances, the young Campbell found an outlet in art. Drawing helped him escape, but around the age of 12, he soon joined his father, who was a talented jewelry maker when he was sober. The father-and-son duo would flatten coins on the train tracks near their house and use the silver. They weren't aiming to make or win prizes back then. They were aiming to survive, by trading the pieces they made for food and supplies.
Campbell would go on to become an acclaimed artist, but that's only half of his celebrated resume.
After leaving high school early to join the United States Air Force during the Korean War, Campbell got his GED after his service. He went to San Jose State University for his bachelor's degree, and it was during these years that he would really embrace his Native American heritage and his father's roots in the Northern Cheyenne Tribe. In a tribal naming ceremony, Campbell was christened Nighthorse (after his great-grandfather Black Horse). Eventually, he became a member of the tribe's Council of 44 Chiefs.
Campbell's grit and determination found a physical outlet in the sport of judo. The sport would take him to Tokyo to study for several years, and Campbell would go on to win multiple national titles, a gold medal in the 1963 Pan American Games, and a place on the 1964 Olympic team (though, after suffering an injury, Campbell didn't take home any medals).
Beyond competition, judo would impact all areas of Campbell's life and the man he was becoming. "The long-range goal of judo is self-training through physical effort," he says today at almost 90 years of age. "I think what you'll learn is dedication and hard work, determination and focus. Those qualities you can apply to anything in life, literally, to try to succeed."
After the Olympics, teaching judo led to Campbell meeting his wife, Linda, a schoolteacher. They have been happily married since 1966, and Campbell is quick to credit Linda with keeping him on a forward path and bringing her organization skills to their marriage.
Campbell applied the lessons of judo to his award-winning jewelry career and also to an accomplished political career. By the 1980s, he and his family, which now included children Shanan and Colin, had moved to Colorado, where Campbell was approached to run for the state legislature. After winning that election against a beloved incumbent, he spent four years in office. He then won a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives, the only Native American member at the time. After three terms in the House, Campbell won a seat in the United States Senate; at the time, he was only the third Native American elected to the Senate.
Throughout his political career, Campbell focused a lot on Native American-centered bills, public land use, and water rights, as well as law enforcement and education. He had a hand in writing and passing the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act of 1988, which has given increased opportunities to Native American tribes and has been a driver of job creation, education funding, and more. Campbell's work in water rights even earned him a namesake lake, Lake Nighthorse, in Durango, Colorado.
But all the good he did and all the hard work throughout his political career required considerable sacrifice.
"What I learned, I learned the hard way, and that is because of public office," he says. "The more you give of yourself to the public, the less you have to give to your family. I didn't get to see my kids grow up, and I'll never get that opportunity again. But they've become better parents than I was." Campbell is proud of the legislation he passed and the fact that a lot of Native American people were helped by those bills. "But when you get all done," he says, "it does cut into your creativity."
Ben with daughter Shanan Campbell at Santa Fe's Indian Market, where he exhibited for years before entering politics.
Though his time in politics may have made it hard to tap into creativity, in typical Campbell fashion, he persisted when it came to his jewelry making. He set up a shop in his D.C. apartment for Ben Nighthorse Jewelry and would keep pieces he was working on in his pocket. "The nice thing about jewelry is you can carry it around with you when it's half done, unlike a painting," he says.
While he wasn't allowed to sell his work while in office, Campbell could donate his pieces. He gave the jewelry to his daughter, who had grown up to become an art gallery owner. The Smithsonian gave his work as thank-yous to donors in the building of the National Museum of the American Indian. The State of Colorado used Campbell's pieces to incentivize filmmakers to come work in the state. And Hollywood took notice of his creations. Today, more than 25 celebrities, including Mick Jagger and Robert Redford, have one-of-a-kind Nighthorse pieces, as do several United States presidents.
Campbell retired from political office 2005 and has worked on his art in earnest ever since.
The more you give of yourself to the public, the less you have to give to your family. I didn't get to see my kids grow up, and I'll never get that opportunity again. But they've become better parents than I was.
"You're kind of a vehicle for all of your experiences in life," he says. "I've had a lot of varied experiences, and I think they manifested themselves in an unusual kind of jewelry."
In his travels around the world both with judo and politics, Campbell has always made it a point to visit as many museums as possible. He's gained inspiration from the work of craftsmen and women everywhere, both contemporary and historical, be they the makers of the crowns of kings and queens or of ornate Japanese swords. Campbell has also absorbed things right at home in the American West, especially in his time on tribal lands and in tribal events and ceremonies.
He defines his work as Southwest contemporary with Native American and cowboy-style designs. "It's my jewelry, and whatever comes out of me is what they get, but I get a lot of inspiration [for living] in the southwest part of the country. It's a very rich, rewarding area. There's a lot of Native people here, but also we live near places where there's art on the rocks and has been for thousands of years."
First: "Heavenly Horses" cuff bracelets by Ben Nighthorse Campbell. Second: Two-Tone Bracelets by Ben Nighthorse Campbell. Third: "Running Horses" necklaces by Ben Nighthorse Campbell.
"I draw some inspiration from those ancient people, too, that left their mark on the stone faces of the canyons here, and that's timeless. It's not just popular today and gone tomorrow. It's been there forever and is going to be there forever."
Campbell's list of awards for his jewelry has topped 200, but he doesn't travel the circuit "chasing ribbons" anymore. Instead, he gets to his shop most days at 5 a.m. (he feels most creative in the early morning, he says) and sets to work on his latest piece, melting and casting silver, cutting turquoise and coral. If he's struck on a piece, he'll turn to one of his many other hobbies or outlets.
"Creativity for me, and I think for most people who have an artistic bent, is an ebb and flow. Some days you're really on, and you get so many ideas that float into your mind, you can't execute them all. Other times you have a drought. For me, having a varied lifestyle with the ranch and horses, and I have some old cars I show in car shows — that varied kind of lifestyle is what inspires me to get back to my workbench," he says.
And then, he adds with a laugh, there are the honey-do's Linda has for him that keep him busy.
Wrapping up the interview, Campbell has a couple of final stories. One is about when his daughter was young and trying her hand at jewelry making. After spending time in the shop, her hands and fingernails had gotten very dirty. And the work had been hard. "Jewelry is beautiful when it's done," he says, "but when it's in the process of being made, sometimes it doesn't look that good."
The same, as Campbell well knows, could be said of life.
Judo, politics, jewelry, family — Campbell has soaked up the lessons life has offered. "One of the biggest things I've learned is don't give up," he says. "If you can learn that skill, you can transfer that skill to anything — to business, to education, to anything. Don't give up. I think I was driven not by the will to succeed but the wish to not give up."
He certainly hasn't "I'm in my late 80s, but the fact is I've still got 20/20 vision and dexterity in my hands," Campbell says. "As long as I have that, I'm going to keep on working. I can't imagine a time when I'm not making jewelry."
For more on Ben Nighthorse Jewelry, visit sorrelsky.com.