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Heap Big Irony

Philip Terzian salutes a conservative Indian

Dec 3, 2012, Vol. 18, No. 12 • By PHILIP TERZIAN
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I have what might be called a philosophical attitude toward the defeat of Senator Scott Brown of Massachusetts. Brown, it seems to me, played his part in history by delivering “Teddy Kennedy’s seat” (in the immortal phrase of David Gergen) to the Republicans for three years—a brief but pleasant rebuke to the Kennedy myth, and a shock to the Massachusetts vision of the universe. 

Charles Curtis

Charles Curtis

ASSOCIATED PRESS

But of course, with the election of Elizabeth Warren to the Senate, things are once again back to normal in the Commonwealth. What interests me about Warren, however, is not so much her politics as her status as the first Native-American woman in the Senate. Here again, I choose a postmodern point of view. I doubt that Senator-elect Warren has Cherokee blood in her veins; but she seems to think she does—“My papaw had high cheekbones just like all the Indians do”—and if her faith persuaded the great chiefs at Harvard Law School to grant her tenure, or even just to advertise her “minority” status, what difference did her actual DNA make?

In fact, quite a lot. And for that we must go back 20 years in political history, to 1992 and the election of Ben Nighthorse Campbell to the U.S. Senate.

Campbell had a tiny smattering of Indian blood—his predominant ethnic background was Portuguese—but running for office in Colorado, he was shrewd enough always to wear the right genes. He sported a gray ponytail, bolo ties, and he had adopted a native-sounding middle name, “Nighthorse.” It tells us something about the trajectory of modern American life that the former Benny Campbell felt obliged to play Indian in order to practice old-fashioned ethnic politics in Colorado. But by the time Elizabeth Warren was seeking to upgrade her not-very-distinguished teaching career back East, ethnic identity was no longer a tribal emblem but a bureaucratic cudgel. Warren might well have used her “Indian” status to leap over other aspiring palefaces at Harvard, and thanks to her, Harvard Law School could boast of its “diverse” faculty. 

This explains, to some degree, why the election of Ben Nighthorse Campbell was such a big deal at the time. For it was widely assumed in the press that Campbell was the first Native American in the Senate, and that a pioneering Indian was inevitably a boost to progressive ranks. Unfortunately, neither was true. And therein lies a tale.

In May 1929 my late mother’s graduating high school class traveled to Washington from the Philadelphia suburbs and, in the fashion of the day, descended on the White House to shake hands with the president. (My father had done the same a few years earlier and always remembered Calvin Coolidge’s nasal/New England greeting to each student: “Pleased t’ meetcha.”) My mother’s class was scheduled to stand in line for Herbert Hoover, but Hoover was suddenly called away, and Vice President Charles Curtis was the last-minute substitute.

Charles Curtis (1860-1936) of Kansas may be deeply obscured in the vice presidential ranks, but for sentimental reasons, he retained a certain favored status in our household. Moreover, he was (and remains) our country’s only Native American president or vice president, having been partly raised on a Kaw reservation with his maternal grandparents, who were Osage, Potawatomi, and Kaw. Indeed, the West was still wild in Curtis’s childhood: There was armed conflict between the Kaw and the Cheyenne in and around his reservation, and as an adolescent Curtis lived with his (non-Indian) father in Topeka.

In a long and successful career, Curtis was a horseman, lawyer, prosecuting attorney, congressman, and senator, serving as Senate whip and majority leader during the 1920s. He took an interest in Indian affairs, of course, and was the first senator to propose an equal rights amendment for women. But he also had a reputation as an effective legislator, and was once described by his fellow western senator William Borah as “a great reconciler, a walking political encyclopedia, and one of the best political poker players in America.” 

Curtis was also deeply conservative, and an orthodox Republican—which was precisely why he had been added to the national ticket in 1928. Hoover, the Great Humanitarian of World War I, and peripatetic cabinet member during the Harding and Coolidge years, was regarded in GOP ranks as what we would now call a moderate, a party loyalist but not necessarily by strong conviction. The selection of Charles Curtis was explicitly designed to appease conservative Republicans.

Which is what I have always cherished about his memory: Not only was this pioneering Native American a Republican, but in the modern media parlance, a Republican of the wingnut/extremist/right-wing school. Senator-elect Warren has big moccasins to fill.

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