The ‘contrary warrior’: Born in Red Lake, Adam Fortunate Eagle is bound for the history books
Adam Fortunate Eagle is awaiting another film crew, expected to arrive later in the week.
“Four years ago, some jerk cut it down,” he said.
Thus is the life of Adam Fortunate Eagle, born Adam Nordwall in 1929 on Minnesota’s Red Lake Indian Reservation, often embroiled in a notable, perhaps even controversial, event.
Take 1969 for example. On Nov. 9, he went out with a group of fellow American Indians to take over Alcatraz in the San Francisco Bay; they occupied the island for more than a year and a half. Fortunate Eagle himself did not stay with with the occupiers, but was the principal organizer of the event and assisted with logistics.
Or, take 1973 for another example, when citing international law, he stepped off an airplane in Italy, wearing his full traditional grass dance outfit, drove his spear into the Italian soil and proclaimed that he had “discovered” Italy on behalf of American Indians everywhere.
That stunt not only attracted worldwide media attention, but it also led days later to a face-to-face meeting between Fortunate Eagle and Pope Paul, when the pope extended his hand, expecting the traditional kiss of his ring. But Fortunate Eagle instead extended his own hand, adorned with a large Navajo silver and turquoise ring, which he offered to the pope for his kiss.
“There was an audible gasp in the Vatican as all the pope’s aides, cardinals and bishops feared an international incident was about to take place,” Fortunate Eagle recalls in his latest book, “Scalping Columbus and Other Damn Indian Stories.”
“The pope blinked a couple of times and grasped the humor of the moment, and then he broke out into a big happy smile as he reached out to hold my hand. We talked, and then he told me, ‘I have read a great deal about the American Indian and I know what you are doing.’ “
From Red Lake to Pipestone
The son of a Swedish man and Chippewa woman, Adam Nordwall was born at Red Lake. At age 5, his father died and his mother sent Adam and five of his siblings away to Pipestone Indian Boarding School in Pipestone, Minn., where Adam was educated from March 1935 to June 1945.
Contrary to vast opinions disparaging such schools, Adam speaks highly of his time there.
“Those 10 years at Pipestone, it was the best thing that ever happened to us kids,” he said.
His experiences, and those of his classmates and siblings, are chronicled in his book, “Pipestone: My Life in an Indian Boarding School.” It is the only first-person account of Indian boarding school life.
The book details his initial difficult transition from leaving home to acclimating himself in his new surroundings, writing of meeting his caretakers, Mr. and Mrs. Burns, who were first introduced to him by his older brother as his “new parents.” He writes that he cried himself to sleep that first night, remembering his last Christmas on the reservation, and of the annual lice inspection with “bug rakes” at the school.
But at Pipestone, the children received an education, three square meals a day, and a staff that not only looked after them but cared for them, including Mr. and Mrs. Burns – or Bill and Bea Burns – with whom he stayed in touch after he graduated.
“She was a second mother to me,” Adam said in an interview.
By fifth grade, he had developed a love for reading, and Adam would bury himself in the library.
“Going into the school library is like going to another planet for me,” he wrote. “There are long shelves filled with all kinds of books. The section I like best is the books about Indians. There’s a whole bunch of them. We can’t check any of them out, so we have to read them right there, even if it takes a whole week to read one book.”
One of his favorites was “Happy Hunting Grounds” by Stanley Vestal, which details the life of Little Chief, a Cheyenne boy who was ordered to stay back and protect his village while the adult warriors went after a Sioux war party. Little Chief dies when he shoots an arrow at a Mandan warrior, misses, and is stabbed himself in return.
“A picture shows the skull of Little Chief wearing an eagle-feather warbonnet,” Adam wrote. “I’ll never get those pictures or the story out of my mind. I’ll never forget that that little boy warrior died defending his people.”
And he didn’t. Later, one of his older brothers joins the Navy when he turns 17, exactly one year after Pearl Harbor. His brother was among 20 who simultaneously joined the military, calling themselves the Avengers.
“The rest of us can hardly wait to grow up so we can be warriors too,” Adam wrote. “We watch for anything that has anything to do with weapons and the battles in the war. I remember reading in the book ‘Happy Hunting Grounds,’ where Little Chief could hardly wait to be a warrior and was killed by the enemy before he was ready. I guess we’ll just have to wait till we’re ready.”
Meanwhile, he hears of changes on the reservation, where an aunt had her cabin broken into while she and her husband had moved to the Twin Cities so he could work making valves for the military. A lot of their belongings were stolen, including a rifle that Adam had been promised would become his upon his graduation.
“This really upsets me, so after dark I climb to the top of the water tower and sit on the big steel ball and look at the lights of Pipestone,” he wrote. “Doggone it! Here we are fighting a war, and sneak thieves are stealing from people who have gone to work to protect us! I think about it and realize that the rifle can kill a moose or help me rob a bank, but it can’t get me a job. I know enough to know, I don’t know know enough yet. I climb down that big steel water tower and I know I have to get a good education to survive. I like to think of myself as a good student with good grades. Ever since I learned how to read, I like it and think it’s fun. Now I must get a good education and learn how to use the education I get.”
Activist, artist and author
His mother, who had remarried and moved several times, at one point wanted Adam to go to a boarding school in Oregon, near where she was at the time. But he fought her and paid with his own funds for a train ticket that would bring him back to Pipestone.
He graduated with his classmates and went on to the Haskell Institute in Kansas, where he met his future wife, Bobbie, a Shoshone Indian.
In the ‘50s, they moved to California, where he became a successful businessman (he owned the First American Termite Co.), artist and leader of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Native American community. These roles led him to organize the Alcatraz occupation, which he details in his book “Heart of the Rock: The Indian Invasion of Alcatraz.”
Despite never attending college, he was honored with an eminence credential from California State University at Hayward, which was a lifetime teaching credential in higher education. He was invited to teach in the sociology department with an emphasis on American Indians, laying the groundwork for a Native American Studies Department. Later, Adam would also be given an honorary doctorate degree from the State University of New York.
A professor at the University of California in 1973 extended an opportunity to have Adam and his wife travel to Rome to be a delegate at the World Futures Research Conference. While doing research, Adam found no historical reference that Italy had ever been discovered.
“My sense of logic and reason kicked in,” he wrote. “If an Italian can lay claim to the discovery of the Americas, with a native population estimated at eighty million in North, Central and South America, then an American Indian should be able to discover a land called Italy.”
He contacted the Italian consulate in San Francisco, and the consul general said he would personally contact the Italian media to alert the country of the plans.
Adam and Bobbie stepped off the plane in Rome with Adam wearing his full traditional outfit and with his spear laid claim to the discovery of the land called Italy.
“I proclaim this day the day of discovery of Italy,” he said. “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.”
At a news conference that lasted an hour and a half, he announced that he would establish a BIA, or Bureau of Italian Affairs, and pledged not to impose a change of the Italian government.
The event and subsequent media storm led to an invitation to meet with the president of Italy, Giovanni Leone, to whom Adam presented a peace pipe, and the subsequent meeting with the pope.
His latest book is a compilation of stories – some are true, some are not, and some are a mixture of the two, he admits. Indeed, the last couple of pages is titled “Percentage of Bull(****) per Story,” in which he estimates by percentage the amount of truth in each tale.
Among the many true stories are “The Curse of the Totem Pole,” which tells of a curse he put on the sewer system in Livermore, Calif., in response to the city’s decision to “Bobbitize” his gift of a totem pole by chopping off the lower four feet.
Some stories carry from one book to another. For example, in “Pipestone,” Adam returns home with his siblings one summer while his mother is pregnant. They are walking through the reservation together as his mother pauses to pick up little grey stones, popping them into her mouth.
“When white women get pregnant they get a craving for pickles or ice cream,” she tells Adam. “Indian women crave these little stones.”
Later, in “Scalping Columbus,” he writes of going back to Red Lake with his granddaughter as they walked along a trail before stopping at a small gravel pit to examine the pebbles. He tells her he is looking for little stones of hardened clay.
His granddaughter finds some and they chew on them together.
“Benayshe now joined the long line of women going back into the mists of time, who hunted and ate those little clay stones.”