Challenges Facing American Indian Youth: On the Front Lines With Senator Ben Nighthorse Campbell
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he journal’s On the Front Lines series features interviews with leading authorities on juvenile justice and related youth issues. These experts have earned their credentials on the front lines in the struggle for a better tomorrow for today’s youth and their families.

JUVENILE JUSTICE: What do you see as the greatest challenges facing American Indian youth today?

U.S. Senator Ben Nighthorse Campbell (CO) is the first American Indian to chair the Indian Affairs Committee. A leader in public lands and natural resources policy, Senator Campbell is recognized for the passage of legislation to settle Indian water rights and protect Colorado’s natural resources. As chair of the Indian Affairs Committee, Senator Campbell has focused on housing, community development, and trust fund reform. This interview was conducted for Juvenile Justice by John J. Wilson, Acting Administrator, Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.

SENATOR CAMPBELL: The greatest challenges facing American Indian youth are overcoming the obstacles to living a normal childhood, receiving a sound education, and being equipped to compete for jobs in the modern economy. Obstacles such as violence, drug and alcohol use, poorly funded schools, discrimination, and racism place incredible burdens on American Indian youth. If parents, tribal leaders, and elected officials do not address these problems and look for real solutions, I am afraid that the cycle of neglect in our communities will be passed on to the next generation.

Challenges experienced by the parents and families who reside on reservations in tribal communities also have an impact on our youth. Issues such as unemployment, poverty, and lack of housing—not to mention poor housing conditions—create an environment of stress and anxiety that does not encourage youngsters to learn, to play, and to live healthy lives. Ultimately, such conditions lead many American Indian kids to depression and, tragically, some of these children even commit suicide. I get upset when I see children who may never have the opportunity to discover their potential or develop their skills because of the inadequate family structures and environments in which they are growing up. Many children are nurtured and provided with appropriate care by family and relatives. Far too often, however, more is needed to provide the kind of environment that children need. We need to encourage and cultivate environments that facilitate positive growth, making it possible to teach children and youth that they can accomplish anything they set their minds to.

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As adults, we have a responsibility to provide children the moral guidance that puts them on the right path.
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JUVENILE JUSTICE: How can adults help American Indian youth meet those challenges?

SENATOR CAMPBELL: As adults, we have a responsibility not only to provide children with a material standard of living that allows them to grow but also to provide the kind of moral guidance that puts our young people on the right path. This path will lead them to develop healthy habits that will carry them throughout their lives.

Whether we accept or reject the fact that we are role models for children, the reality is that kids need discipline and a loving, guiding hand to help them through life’s ups and downs. It is our responsibility as adults to live our lives without dependence on drugs and alcohol, work for a better standard of living for our families, and be good neighbors and citizens.

Senator Ben Nighthorse Campbell
Senator Ben Nighthorse Campbell

I often speak of character being the most important trait to develop, because it helps guide people through life’s downturns. Developing character means showing our youngsters that they can overcome hardships and become productive members of our society and even leaders of our Nation. For American Indian youth, developing character also means making them conscious of the pride of American Indian people resulting from our long traditions and many contributions to this great Nation. Adults need to take time and tell the stories of our people so that our children will be able to understand the pain experienced and the strength shown to overcome obstacles. What we have shown in recent years is that when tribes, States, the nonprofit sector, and the Federal Government work together, they bring progress and hope to youngsters. We can keep these children off the streets and provide them with constructive alternatives to enjoy a healthy, safe, and happy environment.

When I was in college in Japan, I was struck by the reverence that Japanese youth had for their elders and the respect accorded to what the elders had to say. I think we can learn a lot from the Japanese culture, including the need for adults not only to be responsible but to serve as mentors to young people so that they will not have to face their problems alone.

JUVENILE JUSTICE: What role should the Federal Government play in assisting American Indian youth?

SENATOR CAMPBELL: That is an excellent question and one that I have grappled with during my tenure in the U.S. Senate and, more recently, as Chairman of the Committee on Indian Affairs. I have submitted proposals on healthcare, substance abuse, education, and a host of other issues that have been enacted into law. At the same time, we must face a stark but obvious conclusion: the Federal Government does not have answers to all the problems that face American Indian youth. The government cannot force people to love one another, and it can do little to make people act responsibly. We can provide incentives for young men to be responsible fathers and for young women to avoid getting pregnant in the first place, but in the end, it comes down to values. I believe that only when American Indian people return to traditional tribal values will there be fundamental changes in the kinds of environment we are providing for our young people. I believe the programs that the Federal Government currently offers are effective but limited in scope. These programs and funds are not distributed to all tribes or tribal communities. Many of these funds are distributed to programs that are only educational and preventive in nature. A small amount of money is made available to tribes to establish residential and treatment centers that provide a therapeutic environment to combat the increased rise in alcohol and substance abuse on reservations—addictions that often lead to juvenile delinquency or worse.

I believe that the Federal Government should continue to provide technical assistance and professional expertise to tribes to help develop effective programs and work with American Indian youth who are experiencing problems. Many of the adults who reside in our communities are not trained to deal with such problems; however, their involvement is essential to the successful treatment of our children.

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Only when American Indians return to tribal values will there be changes in the environment provided our young people.
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JUVENILE JUSTICE: What changes have you seen in Indian country over the past few decades?

SENATOR CAMPBELL: When I was a boy, the violence that is taking place in many of our communities today was not a problem. It seems to me that our children are at war with each other and themselves. The increase in gangs is a troubling new phenomenon. I read somewhere that American Indian youth have the strongest relationship to delinquency and violence. On many reservations, the feeling of hopelessness among our youth is resulting in a high suicide rate. The complications of depression and suicide are well recognized problems in American Indian communities. The rate of suicide among American Indian youth between ages 15 and 24 was nearly triple the U.S. population rate for the same age group from 1989 to 1991. In 1997, 2 percent of all juveniles arrested for public drunkenness and driving under the influence were American Indian, which is nearly double their representation in the general population. The data also show that far too many American Indian youth suffer from obesity and diabetes.

I am discouraged and often amazed at the increase in single mothers in our communities and at the age at which our children are having children. It is time for something to be done to prevent this chain of events.

JUVENILE JUSTICE: What programs do you believe are best suited to preventing delinquency among American Indian youth?

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If more parents and extended family members become involved with their kids’ lives, we’ll start to see some changes.
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SENATOR CAMPBELL: Successful programs are currently in operation across Indian country, but not that many. The ones that are working are focused on health and educational, vocational, social, and character development. Education and treatment programs geared at youth development are needed, especially programs that incorporate the families into the treatment. For programs to be successful, we need to unite children with their families to work on the family structure and support systems. Let me stress again that I do not believe more programs will solve all of our problems. I do believe that if more parents and extended family members become involved with their kids’ lives on a daily basis, we’ll start to see some changes. Children and youth benefit from the tools and skills they are taught, such as responsible decisionmaking, and when these skills are reinforced in the household, children will adopt them not only as teachings but as principles to live by.

For these reasons, I believe that our families and private nonprofit organizations offer the best hope for preventing delinquency. For many youth—American Indian and non-American Indian alike— joblessness leads to delinquency. Over the past 4 years, my legislative focus has been to increase economic and job opportunities in American Indian communities and ensure that the education kids receive will enable them to compete for those jobs.

I was helped by two factors. One was the military, as I served in the U.S. Air Force during the Korean conflict and learned a great deal about discipline and being part of something bigger than myself. The second was athletics. I was on the 1964 U.S. Olympic Judo Team in Japan, and I have found that athletics encourages the kind of competition and teamwork that many youth, unfortunately, never experience.

JUVENILE JUSTICE: What kinds of interventions do you think are most effective in rehabilitating American Indian juvenile offenders and combating recidivism?

SENATOR CAMPBELL: As mentioned earlier, the most effective intervention techniques involve parents and families. Programs need to offer an array of services that address the range of factors that lead to delinquency. We know that delinquent behavior is not the only problem facing American Indian youth. Such behavior often stems from problems children are experiencing in their family environments. Too often, they resort to violent and aggressive behavior as a coping mechanism. Delinquency can sometimes serve as a catalyst for other dangerous activities that often lead to detention and confinement. I believe that intervention programs that offer a therapeutic environment and incorporate traditional healing and cultural awareness are most effective in dealing with American Indian juvenile offenders. Programs need to take a holistic approach that offers individual, group, and family counseling. Such promising practices can and should be replicated across tribal communities because of the common challenges that American Indian youth face.

JUVENILE JUSTICE: What has Congress been doing to assist American Indian youth?

SENATOR CAMPBELL: In this session of Congress, we have been addressing issues that affect American Indian youth and juvenile delinquency, such as education, alcohol and substance abuse, health care (including mental health), job training and job creation, and many others. When the tribes are in the saddle, they are more successful than the Federal Government in terms of providing services to their members because they know what is best for their communities. I have sponsored several initiatives that build on the success that Indian tribes have had designing and implementing their own healthcare systems, coordinating government resources to address alcohol and substance abuse, and providing job training, among other accomplishments.

For 30 years, American Indian self-determination and self-governance have offered tribes the opportunity to take the reins for law enforcement, healthcare, resource management, and other programs and tailor these services to the needs of their communities. To increase awareness of fundamental facts about Indian country and Federal law and policies, the Committee on Indian Affairs has hosted briefings to educate congressional, governmental, and tribal staff on issues affecting American Indian youth and other important matters. As we wind up the 106th Congress, we will continue to work on these issues and look forward to getting a running start in the 107th Congress.

JUVENILE JUSTICE: What more would you like to see Congress do on behalf of American Indian youth?

SENATOR CAMPBELL: I think the emphasis on “more” is misplaced, because all too often in Washington, DC, the measure of commitment to an issue is seen in terms of how many taxpayer dollars are spent on it. For some problems, such as building schools, money is a key ingredient to achieving success. Juvenile justice and related youth issues are not entirely in that category, however, and they rely as much or more on the involvement of parents, elders, religious leaders, and teachers.

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American Indian self-determination and self-governance have offered tribes the opportunity to take the reins.
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Having said that, I have made sure that when Congress provides funds to address such matters, American Indians are treated fairly and equitably. This is particularly true in the areas of education, alcohol and substance abuse programs, and counseling services. Along with overseeing the U.S. Department of Defense schools, the United States is responsible for one other school system—the American Indian school system—and frankly, it is doing an inadequate job. We need to address this issue. When we realize that facilities need to be built so that our children can receive the proper education they deserve in an environment that facilitates learning, we will have made the first step in helping out our youngsters.

JUVENILE JUSTICE: When you were a boy, did you imagine that one day you would serve in the U.S. Senate?

SENATOR CAMPBELL: Becoming a U.S. Senator was just about the last thing I imagined when I was growing up. I experienced what some might call a misspent youth. Like many youngsters, I was rebellious and got into my share of trouble. I was fortunate enough, however, to encounter people and activities that helped me focus on positive goals. Once I was able to harness my youthful exuberance, I was amazed at what I could accomplish. That same sense of duty and the drive to be the best I can still push me to this day.

JUVENILE JUSTICE: Who were some of your role models?

SENATOR CAMPBELL: I couldn’t begin to list all of the people who have had a positive influence on my life. I would not want to omit anyone who has helped me. But, certainly, Reuben Black Horse and Austin Two Moons of my Cheyenne family have guided my adult development. Josh Uchida, my 1964 U.S. Olympic Judo Team coach, and Paul Maruyama, a teammate, also inspired me and showed me how dedication and hard work can forge success. My wife of 32 years, Linda, has always been a steadying influence on me.

JUVENILE JUSTICE: Thank you, Senator.


Juvenile Justice - Challenges Facing American Indian Youth:
On the Front Lines With Senator Ben Nighthorse Campbell
December 2000,
Volume VII · Number 2