Tonto Apaches Remember ‘Chief'

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Melton Campbell -- known by family, friends and the community as "Chief" Campbell, a nickname given him in childhood -- died 10 years ago Sept. 13. To honor the memory of the man and his contributions to his people, the Tonto Apaches had commemoration events Saturday.

His nephew, Nathan Campbell, said Campbell spearheaded the campaign for federal recognition of the Tonto Apaches as a tribe.

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Melton "Chief" Campbell enjoys a pause in his busy life for a cup of coffee in his in-laws' Tucson kitchen in the early 1980s.

Campbell's widow, Nancy, shared some of her memories a couple of days before the commemoration.

The couple met in 1973 through Campbell's sister, Vinnie. Nancy had come to Payson in 1972 with her two small daughters, Jacque and Donna. She started helping Vinnie sell fry bread at rodeos and a casual introduction was arranged.

"I was a little afraid of him because he carried that authority," Nancy said. "But once you got to know him, you found out he was a cream puff. He just didn't want everyone to know that. Everybody called him ‘Chief' and he wore the name well. He was a born leader. It came natural to him. His caring for his people ... Many a night I'd wake up and he'd be sitting on the side of the bed, or at his sewing machine. His head would be in his hands and he'd be praying. He spent a lot of time in prayer."

Campbell's dedication to God and his people are the things Nancy said she admired and respected about him the most.

"We accomplished a lot together," she said. "We worked hard together, putting the tribe together and all the programs for the kids and church and even other communities."

Even after 10 years, the loss of her husband weighs heavily on Nancy.

"You can always tell if a man's footprints have left an impression when others are still walking in them," she said, crying. "It's been hard, not just because he was my husband. He was a good friend, he was my best friend."

She said Campbell pushed hard to accomplish a lot, and a lot of people thought he was too hard.

"But he would see the potential in people and he'd push you to your potential, even if you wanted to knock him out at the time," she said.

Because Campbell's legacy lives on in so much and in the memories of many of the people he touched and helped through the years, he is never far from thoughts.

"We think about what he'd do," said Belinda Guerra, the daughter of Cassie Johnson, Campbell's only surviving sibling. "Remembering him is something his family and others still do."

Guerra, along with her cousins, Nathan and Sabrina Campbell, the children of one of the deceased leader's brothers, all sat down to talk about their uncle and their memories with the Roundup a few days before the Sept. 13 events.

The Tonto Apaches were recognized as a tribe in October 1972 and Campbell had worked for that for a number of years. One of the things that had to be in place for the recognition was a constitution, which he helped draft.

Although "Chief" was not a hereditary title, but one of affection, Campbell was elected as the newly recognized tribe's first chairman, Nathan said.

He inherited his leadership skills.

"His father, George Irving Campbell, was also a leader in the community," Sabrina said.

"My earliest memory of him was in church," Nathan said. "Our house was right across from the church. My memory is of him behind the pulpit."

Campbell was the pastor of the Tonto Apache's Pentecostal Church, Nathan said.

"He helped our family after our father died," Nathan said.

Sabrina's earliest memory of her uncle was trying to help all the families as well as remembering him behind the pulpit.

"He was instrumental in helping raise all the children," Sabrina said.

"Through the 80s, when I used to visit with him he'd always ask ‘Who took the windshield out of the car?', teasing me about my big hair. Everyone knew about my big hair back then. He was always joking around about our modern times. To him, they were crazy," Sabrina said.

"He had a good sense of humor, a dry sense of humor," Nathan said.

Nancy agreed.

"He had a wonderful sense of humor. He loved to tease," she said. "You didn't know whether to pinch or hug him, so sometimes he got both."

Nathan has especially fond memories of going to Campbell's house Sundays after church.

"They always had a crockpot of something on and we'd take naps before the evening service," Nathan said. "He never put me down, never criticized me. He was disciplining me all the time, but doing it in a caring way."

Belinda, Sabrina and Nathan all remember their uncle as a tremendously talented man. Not only was he a community leader and pastor, he also designed and made clothes, for which he won numerous awards. He also played the guitar and knew everything about cars.

"He would love Wal-Mart. He'd be in the material section all the time," Belinda said.

"You could tell him how your car was sounding and he would tell you what was wrong with it," Sabrina said.

Campbell also was a certified softball umpire and coached the Tonto Apache women's softball team.

His leadership was also recognized by others, Nathan said. He was president of the Indian Development District of Arizona, vice president of the Inter-Tribal Council of Arizona, which had a 17 tribe membership, and he also was president of the Payson's Sheriff's Posse for a time. Campbell also served on many other committees and contributed his efforts to numerous organizations, Nancy said.

Campbell attended Payson schools, and even had Julia Randall as a teacher.

"He talked about how strict she was and her hitting him on the knuckles with a ruler when he was acting up," Nathan said.

Campbell spent his whole life in Payson.

"He was a modern day chief, the last authentic leader of the Apache people because of his knowledge of our heritage and the vision he had for the Tonto Apache people," Nathan said. "He was very influential among other Apache leaders too. His relationship with God was special."

"His determination and dedication to God were the driving forces because he wanted so much for the Tonto Apache," Sabrina said. "He was able to see the first fruits of gaming's start on the reservation when he was taken to visit the first little casino."

The first Mazatzal Casino opened in August; Campbell died in September.

"The most wonderful part of all this is he might be out of sight, but being able to still go to the reservation and be with his people keeps him close," Nancy said. "He's a hard act to follow."

A time of remembrance

A dinner for tribal members and invited guests was held the evening of Sept. 13, while golfers gathered in Campbell's name at the Heber-Overgaard course for the Tonto-Mazatzal Chief Campbell Memorial Golf Shootout. Organizing the events were Tribal Councilman Kenny Davis, his brother, Wally Davis Jr., and Sabrina Campbell.

"I want to thank the tribe for doing this. It's very timely, even though it brings back memories and few tears, it's also going to bring a lot of laughs and a time to be family and long time tribal friends who helped get the people where they are today," Nancy said.

There were quite a few tears at the dinner as people spoke of their memories of Campbell.

Nancy's daughters, Jacque and Donna, who were adopted by Campbell and whom he raised from the time they were still in diapers, opened the program and made a special presentation to the Tonto Apache Tribal Council -- the original bill recognizing the tribe's status.

Campbell's cousin, Vincent Randall -- former chairman of the Yavapai-Apache Nation in the Verde Valley -- spoke about their close connection, explaining that in the Apache culture, they were more than cousins, they were brothers. The two men grew up together and while distance separated them later, Randall said they kept that closeness.

Randall said from 1963, and every year until it became a reality, Campbell said the Tonto Apache were going to get some land.

"That spirit of optimism was always with him," he said. "He always credited God with the strength of (his) optimism."

He said one of the most important Bible verses for Campbell was, "Do not let the sun set on your anger."

"Don't forget that legacy," Randall said. "We're all relatives. Love each other. Let us live a life of good thoughts and good words."

Tonto Apache Chairperson Vivian Burdette also spoke.

"I grew up with him. The first thing I remember was Chief taking me to school. He was my mentor," she said. "Everything I am today is what he taught me. He was a wonderful person and he always encouraged us to compliment people. He was always there to help you, no matter what time of day."

Burdette also became tearful as she said, "I miss Chief, especially when I'm reading the Bible and I get hung up on something. I want to go to his house and ask him to tell me what it means. He said, ‘Read between the lines. The spirit will teach you and give you guidance.' I'm glad he was part of my life."

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