Young Leader Takes Center Stage On Tonto Council


First, he wanted to be a movie star.

Second, he wanted to help the Tonto Apache Tribe like his late uncle and role model, Chief Melton Campbell.

Hollywood lost out.

Today, Nathan Campbell is the youngest vice-chairman ever elected within the Tonto-Apache Tribe. And a week ago Saturday, he was elected to a second term on the tribal council.

But it's not like Campbell couldn't have become a movie star if he'd wanted to.

"I was a big movie buff," said the 33-year-old. "I loved James Stewart, Jimmy Cagney, a lot of the older stars. And I was in plays in high school and college: 'Carousel,' 'Oklahoma,' 'The Fantastiks,' 'Night Must Fall.'"

How good was he? Well, when Campbell was a senior at Payson High School, he was accepted into the American Academy of Dramatic Arts a major stepping-stone for many famous performers.

But Campbell turned thumbs-down on the opportunity.

"At that time, I wanted to do so many things, and I really didn't know which way to go," he said.

But acting was not yet completely out of his life. He and his brother worked as extras in an episode of the 1970s TV series "The Life and Times of Grizzly Adams," which was filmed in the Rim country.

"Other than that," Campbell said, "I never pursued acting with my whole heart."

Unlike the way he pursued helping his community.

"The desire to do that was something I gained as I grew older," Campbell said. "My family has always been involved in tribal politics. My uncle, Chief Campbell, was instrumental in changing the direction of my life. I saw and read up on the accomplishments he made for the tribe. He even went national to fight for what we have today.

"What impressed me the most about him was his leadership ability, his ability to get things done. I'm still learning that today. But it was his faith in God, I think, that was his greatest strength."

Chief Campbell's influence took hold completely in 1984, after Nathan Campbell had spent five years working for Alaska Airlines as a reservations sales agent.

"My uncle was terminally ill at the time, and I knew his loss would be great," Campbell said. "It was hard, because I had seniority within the company ... but that's when I first started taking a serious look at coming back and getting involved with the community."

Upon his return, Campbell was hired as an administrative assistant to the tribal council, moved up to grants and contracts, increased his business acumen at Northern Arizona University, then came back to work for the tribe in the regulatory end of the casino operations where he stayed until winning his first election.

Since that time, Campbell has amassed a list of goals that he thinks would impress his late uncle.

"The top priority right now is the (U.S. Forest Service/Tonto Apache land exchange) and, of course,

the other issues that come with it: water, law enforcement for which we just signed a new agreement with the town and keeping the doors open between the town and the tribe.

"Next would be education for our young people, and culture and language preservation. That is very important to me. My generation has grown up not being able to speak (its native language), and that scares me. When I have kids, how am I going to pass that on to the them when I don't know how to speak it myself? That's one of the major issues I want to tackle in this new administration.

"And, of course, economic development, so we can generate revenue for the tribe instead of having to depend on the federal government for grants and the monies that come from the Bureau of Indian Affairs, because that's being cut way low. The tribes that don't have gaming are hurting. I don't want us to ever go back to that situation. Gaming has afforded us not only self-determination, but a whole new outlook on life, and pride in what we have."

For Campbell, that pride is something that has only developed within his lifetime.

"When I was growing up here in Payson, we were considered squatters. I grew up across the street (from where the Mazatzal Casino now stands) in a shack with no running water and an outhouse. At that time, we were treated like second-class citizens. But that's changed a lot."

As a child, the only place Campbell felt truly equal was in school.

"I had great teachers who really influenced my life ... In high school, my art teacher, Dean Pederson, always encouraged me to do my best in anything. He let me know that I am somebody, that I could do something with my life.

"Even when I went through a period of my life where I was very down, I never forgot about the people who had said those very positive things to me. What they instilled into my mind saved me during a very bad period when I was abusing alcohol, getting in with the wrong people. I even tried to commit suicide. That's how low I got.

"But I fought back; I thought, 'No. I can't allow myself to do this. I've got people looking up to me. Get back in there.' And now look where I am.

"I hope I have a positive impact on the young people of my tribe," Campbell said. "Maybe when I'm gone, they'll look back and say something good about me, or remember that I told them that, if they put their heart into it, they can do anything.

"Even if it's just one person."

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