Last month, former Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell, who is also a jewelry designer, was awarded the Trailblazer Award by the Association of Tribal Archives, Libraries and Museums at its ninth annual conference held in Arizona.
The Trailblazer Award is given to people who have worked to preserve and advance Native American culture. He joins, among others, Chief Wilma Mankiller, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Scott Momaday and Native American National Park Superintendent Gerard Baker.
I talked with Campbell this week about the award.
Q: Tell me about the work you’ve done at the National Museum (of the American Indian in Washington, D.C.).
A: I was the original House sponsor to authorize the building of the National Museum of the American Indian a lot of years ago. And, of course, we had to raise literally millions and millions in the private sector. It took 18 years to get that built, and it just happened to be ... we opened the doors just about 30 days before I retired from Congress, so that was I think one of the things ... I think what they give it (the Trailblazer Award) to you for is sort of cumulative events that you’ve worked toward trying to further the cultural knowledge of people about American Indians.
Q: Was your award a surprise? Did you see it coming?
A: Yes. They sent me a letter and told me I’d been selected and asked me if I could be at their national ATALM – the Association of Tribal Archives, Libraries and Museums – if I could be at their luncheon, and they meet every year, and this year, they met in Scottsdale (Arizona), and there’s about 700 people that go to that, and almost all of them represent different universities or museums. There are even quite a few people from Canada, too, in fact. It’s kind of a big deal, so I was very honored.
Q: What does this award mean to you?
A: I guess ... I didn’t need an award to do what I did; I did it because I thought it needed to be done when I sponsored the legislation to build the museum, but I was also the first person of Native American ancestry ever in the U.S. Senate to chair the Committee on Indian Affairs, and in that capacity, I introduced and got a lot of legislation passed to help tribes in water settlements, like the Animas-La Plata as an example, that was one of my bills, and a number of other things. But I guess from a cultural standpoint, the best achievement that I can think of is really the building of the Museum of the American Indian.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I’m the co-chairman of the advisory committee to build the National Monument for Indian Veterans, which was authorized by Congress several years ago. And the goal is to raise $15 million in the next five years to build it. The legislation did not specifically say what the monument should be – it didn’t say like a statue, or a building, or an archive or what – so under the leadership of Kevin Gover, who’s the director of the National Museum of the American Indian, we’ve been doing hearings around the country with Indian tribes and Indian people ... to give us some idea about what shape it should take. They’re already interviewing professional fundraising teams, and there’s no doubt there’ll be a major support from the Indian tribes, too.