---------- Forwarded message ----------
Date: Tue, 22 Oct 2002 13:10:18 -0700
From: radtimes <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Subject: Bay Areas trickster grandfather of radical Indian movement
Profile: Adam Fortunate Eagle Nordwall
Bay Area's trickster grandfather of radical Indian movement
by Sam McManis, Chronicle Staff Writer
Monday, October 21, 2002
Fallon, Nev. -- It is difficult to miss Adam Fortunate
Eagle Nordwall's two-acre spread on the
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
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.
As the Bay Area's grandfather of the radical Indian
movement, Nordwall is proving once again that he
These days, the Chippewa who made the white
establishment take notice is not only making waves
in Livermore for a decades-old totem pole incident, he
is also rekindling controversy with his new memoir of
the Indian occupation of Alcatraz.
He 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
"I use (humor) in a way some Indians don't
understand," he said. "It's called serious joke
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
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
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:
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
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
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
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
What makes Fortunate Eagle run off at the mouth
It could be a difficult childhood, his quest from an
early age to fit in and find his place in an often-hostile
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
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 racismcoming 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
It would not be until he turned 42 that Nordwall would
receive an Indian name he felt he could say aloud:
Fortunate Eaglebestowed 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
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.
Coincidentallyor 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
The Alcatraz story also has returned to lightthis
time by Nordwall's own handin 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
"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
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
Retirement on the Res did not mean an end to
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
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
"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
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
"I may even have a few more political acts up my
sleeve," Nordwall says. "You never know."
E-mail Sam McManis at
This archive was generated by hypermail 2b30 : Mon Oct 28 2002 - 14:49:16 EST