October 22, 2002

Adam Fortunate Eagle Nordwall, Chippewa activist


FALLON, Nev. — “It is difficult to miss Adam Fortunate Eagle Nordwall’s two-acre spread on the Paiute-Shoshone Reservation.

There, rising like a sacred temple out of the dusty brush, stand stacks of 5,000 fraying tires, reinforced with rusted cans and sand. They serve as the walls for what may be the first entirely recycled Native American roundhouse — even if it’s still only half-built after a decade.

“It’s a work in progress,” says Nordwall, 73, who admits the environmentally correct earth lodge is part fantasy, part folly. “One of these days, I’ll finish it.”

Fortunate Eagle, too, is a work in progress — or maybe just a piece of work.


Adam Fortunate Eagle Nordwall Adam Fortunate Eagle Nordwall hardly resembles the dashing, short-cropped, raven-haired figure he cut in the ’60s, when he helped form the Indian movement out of his San Leandro home and partied with the likes of Black Panthers, Terence Hallinan and Willie Brown. His hair, now in braids he hasn’t cut since the ’70s, has gone entirely gray, and laugh lines are deeply carved into his face.

But there’s a glint of the “sacred clown” that endures in his grandfatherly countenance — and makes him impossible to ignore, whether it’s those who consider him a hero for raising Indian awareness or those who brand him a headline-chasing embarrassment to his own people.

“I use (humor) in a way some Indians don’t understand,” he said. “It’s called serious joke medicine.”

And to understand Nordwall past and present is to understand his clowning, whether sacred or profane — those madcap acts of political theater that made him a legend.

Act I: Alcatraz, 1964

By day, Nordwall was a serious businessman who earned his termite inspector’s license at age 21 and started his own company, First American Termite, in San Leandro. He had a split-level home in the suburbs, wore his hair short and joined a bowling league with his wife, Bobbie.

By night, he transformed into an activist. His specialty: publicity stunts. Guided by whims and whimsy, Nordwall and some Indian colleagues hit upon a plan for reclaiming Alcatraz, which had recently been shut down as a prison.

They borrowed a boat and, armed with a proclamation, landed on the Rock. Alcatraz’s caretaker kept them at bay and, after four hours, the Indians sailed back to Oakland.

Nordwall, of course, alerted the media, and the San Francisco Examiner’s headline the next day read: “Wacky Invasion.”

Act II: Columbus Day, 1968

Every year, Bay Area Italian Americans would gather at Aquatic Park in San Francisco for a Columbus Day pageant in which Columbus’ discovery of America would be re-enacted. How lame it was, Nordwall thought, using Boy Scouts in phony garb to portray indigenous people.

So, as president of the Bay Area Council of American Indians, Nordwall dressed in his best business suit and successfully lobbied event organizer Joe Cervetto, who portrayed Columbus, to use real Indians in the ceremony.

But Nordwall continued to be irked that Indians were not included in other parts of the celebration. “It was like blacks allowed to entertain but not eat with the guests,” he said.

It was time to veer from the script. When Cervetto climbed out of his boat and headed up the beach to “discover San Francisco,” Nordwall extended his arm with a ceremonial Indian stick. Cervetto bowed. Then, deftly, Nordwall flicked off Columbus’ toupee in protest. It was low-tech scalping.

A photograph in Fortunate Eagle’s book shows the bald-pated Cervetto on all fours grinning, but the Indians were not asked back the next year. And two years later, when Nordwall and the Indians showed up for the ceremony in tribal regalia, riot police were there to meet them.

“It outraged the Italians,” he recalled. “But the rest of the crowd thought it was hilarious.”

Act III: Alcatraz, the sequel, 1969

This time, taking the Rock would be neither short nor wacky. OK, maybe a little wacky.

In fall of 1969, the San Francisco Indian Center in the Mission District burned to the ground from suspicious origins around the same time commercial developer Lamar Hunt sought approval from the Board of Supervisors to purchase Alcatraz.

Incensed, activists decided to take the Rock for “Indians of all tribes.” Nordwall authored a “document of discovery” and they launched in a rented boat on Nov. 9. The activists again were stopped by a caretaker, but the college- aged participants felt Nordwall, then pushing 40, was not aggressive enough.

So student leaders planned to return in strength two weeks later when Nordwall would be out of town.

What began as a small rift between the college activists and Nordwall soon widened. Nordwall said he decided not to live on the Rock because he had more to lose. He was, after all, the father of three school-age children at the time.

“There I was, a successful businessman who turned around to help his fellow Indians in a time of crisis, but because I drove a Cadillac, because I sometimes wore a suit, it was held against me,” he said. “They resented it. Because I was so vocal and public, I was a target for all sides.”

ACT IV: Papal encounter, 1973

Though he never went to college, Nordwall taught Native American studies at Cal State Hayward. One day, a colleague asked him to attend the International Conference of World Futures in Rome.

The Italian media were waiting for Nordwall when he deplaned in full tribal regalia and made this pronouncement as cameras flashed: “‘What right did Columbus have to discover America when it had already been inhabited for thousands of years? The same right I now have to come to Italy and proclaim the discovery of your country.”

For a week, Nordwall became a celebrity in the Italian media. Then he was summoned to the Vatican for an audience with Pope Paul.

When led in to meet the pontiff, who lifted his ring-clad hand for the customary kiss, Nordwall was ready. He offered his ring right back to the pope.

“There’s this gasp,” Nordwall recalled. “But the pope broke the ice. He broke into a grin and clasped my hand.”

The photo of Nordwall and the pope hand-in-hand hangs in two places of prominence in his home now. Nordwall’s wife, Bobbie, still seems bemused by the exchange three decades later.

“I was surprised, but what was I supposed to do, run over there and grab his arm and tell him we have to go home?” Bobbie Nordwall said. “When he opens his mouth like that, it’s best just to get out of his way.”

What makes Fortunate Eagle run off at the mouth so?

It could be a difficult childhood, his quest from an early age to fit in and find his place in an often-hostile world.

Nordwall was born in 1929 in Red Lake, Minn. His mother, Rose, was Chippewa; his father, Anton, of Swedish descent. The family of eight lived on the north side, the Christian missionary side, of a 200,000-acre lake. He sometimes wonders now how his life might have turned out had he grown up on the south side, the pagan Indian side, of the lake.

When Adam was 5, his father died. The Swedish side of his family had long since disowned them. Against his mother’s wishes, Adam and four other Nordwalls were shipped to a boarding school, Pipestone Indian Training School.

It was there that Nordwall first experienced a different kind of racism — coming from pure-bred Indians. He didn’t look “Indian enough” to the other kids.

“I’d look at those beautiful Sioux and Cheyenne boys with their beautiful long narrow noses and then look at my pug nose in the mirror,” he recalled. “I became very self-conscious.

And all the other kids had these great names like Running Hawk or Charging Eagle. My name? Nordwall. Kids were mean, and my sensitive little hide couldn’t take it.”

Actually, he had a Chippewa name that he learned when he was 8: Amabese, meaning “Handsome.”

“Now, there are some names that kids can proudly say out loud,” Nordwall said. “But that’s not one of them.”

It would not be until he turned 42 that Nordwall would receive an Indian name he felt he could say aloud: Fortunate Eagle — bestowed on him by a Crow Indian for whom he had done a favor.

“What do eagles do?” Nordwall asks. “They circle.”

Standing in the husk of his roundhouse, Nordwall likes to talk about the circularity of life, how the past never really stays in the past, how it only changes form.

The Livermore “Curse”

Take his long ago tussle with the city of Livermore. In 1969, Nordwall had donated an 18-foot totem pole to the city for its centennial cityhood celebration. But after the city chopped off several feet from the bottom of the pole before installing it at a city park, Nordwall demanded that they restore it. The city refused and, right there in the council chambers, he put a curse on the town’s sewer system.

Coincidentally — or not? — Livermore’s sewers backed up less than two weeks later. And Livermore’s frantic city fathers quickly restored the missing sections of the desecrated pole.

That didn’t end it. Last February, two Bay Area documentarians included the totem pole yarn in an hourlong film about Livermore’s colorful history. Nordwall was interviewed, as were the retired city manager and a prominent resident.

In the documentary, Nordwall said he still was waiting for a formal apology from Livermore before lifting the curse. Weeks after the film was released, two of the city fathers featured in the film (both in their 70s) died.

Livermore’s current mayor, Marshall Kamena, now is pushing the city to formally apologize to Nordwall, lest any other untoward events occur.

“Heart of the Rock”

The Alcatraz story also has returned to light — this time by Nordwall’s own hand — in his recently published memoir of the Indian occupation in “Heart of the Rock” (University of Oklahoma Press).

Some Native American scholars and activists have called Nordwall’s book a fascinating history of the birth of Indian activism in the Bay Area. Others have attacked it as a 215-page tome of self-promotion.

They say Nordwall exaggerates his role in the Alcatraz uprising and demeans the seriousness of the cause by his “clownish” behavior.

LaNada Boyer, one of the original occupiers of Alcatraz as a UC Berkeley student activist, says Nordwall soared to prominence by embarrassing his people.

“We younger people involved at the time knew what he was about,” said Boyer, who now lives on a reservation in Idaho. “He liked to use the Indian cause for his own benefit as a publicity seeker. He likes to be known as the big guy.

It’s the attention he craves. People get taken in.”

Joe Myers, the executive director of the National Indian Justice Center in Petaluma, counters that Nordwall’s “act” was all about raising awareness.

“Adam provided a link (to the white community),” Myers said. “He’s done a lot for the Indian movement and suffered for it, too.”

He has, for example, a thick FBI file, which he proudly shows visitors. As it did with many radical figures in the ’60s, the FBI compiled a file on Nordwall because of his Native American activism and his leadership in the Alcatraz takeover.

Meanwhile, Nordwall’s termite business went belly up in the mid-1970s. This made news because, by then, Nordwall was the Bay Area Indian movement’s loudest voice and, simultaneously, a respected Chamber of Commerce member.

To this day, Nordwall claims the government was out to get him because of his Indian involvement. The government showed that Nordwall violated numerous code violations at his termite business. The resulting fines and an IRS audit, which resulted in thousands in back taxes, led him to file for bankruptcy in 1975.

Feeling he could not fight the government, Nordwall sold his home in San Leandro and did what Native Americans call “go back to the blanket” — the reservation.

Retirement on the Res did not mean an end to Nordwall’s activism.

He threw himself into his sculpture with a vengeance in the 1980s, selling pieces for thousands of dollars and winning art-show awards. He also made the circuit as a traditional dancer and lectured at universities, crafted ceremonial pipes and headdresses.

In 1987, headdress-making landed Fortunate Eagle in jail for selling protected eagle feathers to an undercover Fish and Wildlife agent. Federal prosecutors in Reno sought a six-year prison term for Nordwall, who admitted to having eagle feathers but argued he had the right to have them because of freedom of religion.

A criminal trial ended in a hung jury, 11-to-1 for acquittal. But Nordwall later was found guilty in a civil trial and forced to pay $15,000 in damages. Every month, he says, he writes a check for $100 to the government.

“The good news is,” he says, deadpan, “that I’ve only got 30 more years to pay on it and then I’ll be a free man.”

In the meantime, however, he remains a free spirit. He spends his mornings chipping away at alabaster in his studio, afternoons wheeling and dealing on the phone with his Hollywood agent and working on a new book titled, “Damn Indian Stories: Truths, Half-Truths and Outright Lies.”

“But,” Bobbie said, “he doesn’t lift a finger to help around the house.”

That could be because Nordwall is too busy scheming to finish that partially constructed tire-and-tin can house out front.

Or could it be that he’s dreaming about clowning yet again?

“I may even have a few more political acts up my sleeve,” Nordwall says. “You never know.”


Sam McManis is a staff writer for the San Francisco Chronicle.

©2002 San Francisco Chronicle.


Alcatraz, then and now Serious Joke Medicine: The Up-to-the-Moment Complete Adventures of Fortunate Eagle


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