[sixties-l] Bay Areas trickster grandfather of radical Indian movement (fwd)

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    Date: Tue, 22 Oct 2002 13:10:18 -0700
    From: radtimes <resist@best.com>
    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
    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.
    As the Bay Area's grandfather of the radical Indian
    movement, Nordwall is proving once again that he
    remains unbowed.
    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
    own people.
    "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
    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
    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
    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
    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
    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

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