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The Religious Affiliation of
Ben Nighthorse Campbell
U.S. Senator from Colorado


Ben Nighthorse Campbell (born April 13, 1933) was a U.S. Senator from Colorado from 1993 until 2005. He was well known for being one of the few Native Americans ever to have served in U.S. Congress, and was the only Native American in Congress at the time he served. Campbell was a U.S. Representative from 1987 to 1993. Ben Nighthorse Campbell was a Republican.

Senator Ben Nighthorse Campbell had a Catholic upbringing. His mother was a devout Catholic, his father was an essentially lapsed Catholic, and young Ben Campbell also spent many of his formative years being raised by Catholic nuns and priests while living orphanages and other Catholic institutions. Ben Nighthorse Campbell's mother had him baptized into the Catholic Church as an infant.

It is unclear to what extent Ben Nighthorse Campbell remained active in Catholicism as an adult, or even whether he continued to identify himself as a Catholic. Official congressional biographies, based on data provided by the Senator and his staff, typically listed his religious affiliation as "unspecified" during his term. This is extremely rare. In fact, Senator Ben Nighthorse Campbell was the only Senator serving in the 106th Congress whose religious affiliation was listed as "unspecified" in official records. One is left to wonder whether this was a clerical oversight, or whether the Senator identified so fully with his Native American ethnicity or some other philosophy that he no longer wished to identify himself as a Catholic or Christian or by any other overtly religious label.

Campbell also served as one of the 44-member Council of Chiefs of the Northern Cheyenne Nation. Ben Nighthorse Campbell's Native American ethnicity was a major aspect of his persona, something he was known widely for. This ethnicity, however, was in large part a personal choice on his part, as much as a result of actual blood or heritage. Campbell likely had more Portuguese blood than Native American blood, and he was the first U.S. Senator of Portuguese descent, but that fact was usually forgotten against the backdrop of his "more American" (and more Coloradoan) story of Indian ancestry.

Ben Nighthorse Campbell's father was Albert Valdez Campbell, a man with a multi-ethnic background who claimed to be a Cheyenne Indian, which was apparently at least partially correct. Albert Campbell also had Apache and Pueblo Indian ancestors, and probably Hispanic and European heritage as well. Ben Nighthorse Campbell would eventually come to identify most strongly with his Native American ancestry (and specifically with his Cheyenne heritage), although he did not even know he was part Native American during his early childhood. [Source: Herman J. Viola, Ben Nighthorse Campbell: an American Warrior, Orion Books: New York (1993), page 1.]

Ben Nighthorse Campbell's mother was Mary Vierra, a young Portuguese woman who was born in the Azores islands off the coast of Portugal (Viola, page 3). Mary Vierra was a devout Catholic. She had both Ben and his sister Alberta baptized into the Catholic Church soon after each was born (Viola, page 4).

Albert Campbell, Ben Campbell's father, was an alcoholic who was completely unsuccessful in holding a steady job. Their family was extremely poor. As a result, the parents repeatedly turned young Ben and Alberta over to Catholic orphanages while they were growing up. Sometimes Catholic institutions did not agree to keep the children for long, and other times the children stayed for over a year. At times the children lived with their mother at the tuberculosis sanatorium where she worked as a nurse and where she had also been a patient. The sanatorium had facilities for patients living their to house children with them, and there were times when Mary and the children lived there because they could not afford to live anywhere else. The Monsignor at a Catholic orphanage which the Campbell's associated with was deeply concerned that Ben Nighthorse Campbell's father Albert was "very careless" about his Catholic faith. The Monsignor was no critical about Albert's church attendance or adherence to Catholic teachings as much as he was critical of Albert's constant alcoholism and absolute failure to provide for his family. The Catholic institutions did what they could to assist Mary in raising her children. (Source: Viola, pages 4-5).

As an adult, Ben Nighthorse Campbell recalled that most of the nuns and priests who were responsible for much of his early upbringing treated him well. He also recalled some particularly stern punishments, such as when a nun threw him into a pen with a large pig. Ben Nighthorse Campbell generally had little criticism of the nuns and priests who raised him, but he pointed out that the institutions and orphanages were not a substitute for a stable home, and he did have some painful childhood memories, as most any child raised in orphanages and institutions would (Viola, pages 7-10).

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Webpage created 22 October 2005. Last modified 22 October 2005.
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