|FALLON -- That first summer on the Stillwater Reservation, Fortunate Eagle wasn't sure what to do with himself.|
From the porch, he watched the late afternoon heat kick up dust devils out of the alkali flat that was his front yard and swirl them into tiny tornadoes that ran wild into self-destruction among the clutter of cottonwoods that formed a windbreak on the west side.
Alcatraz was already more than five years behind him, the audience with the Pope was two years in the past, the Cadillac was gone, the termite business folded, even the classes with college students finished. Ahead lay the great feather case, the discovery of Sweden, international recognition as an artist, and 5,000 used tires.
But in the summer of 1976, the Indian who scalped Columbus and claimed Italy by Right of Discovery; the one who first commandeered a Canadian sailing ship to seize control of U.S. property in San Francisco Bay; that one sat on his porch in a hot and dusty Nevada summer and drew circles in his mind.
It is not well known whether Crazy Horse or Geronimo possessed a sense of humor, but it was probably true among the Sioux and the Apache then as it is now, that a leader who was incapable of telling a joke now and then would have difficulty rallying his people behind him. It is always better, of course, if the White man doesn't get it.
Fortunate Eagle counts his own heritage as dating back be "four" B.C.'s -- "Before Christ, Before Columbus, Before Custer, and before Costner."
White people often get that one quicker than some Indians, among whom Fortunate Eagle is regarded as not being serious enough. Their humor about the situation stops at about the point of cracks made years ago by Fortunate Eagle's friend and noted Native American scholar, Vine Deloria: "Custer Wore an Arrow Shirt," and "Custer Died for Your Sins."
Deloria stopped telling jokes to White people a long time ago, but Fortunate Eagle still has hopes that, one day, the federal government will get it.
They didn't find it particularly amusing when Fortunate Eagle, then known by his Social Security name of Adam Nordwall, wrote a proclamation declaring that the bleak, waterless, rundown and neglected island of Alcatraz fit perfectly in the description of an American Indian Reservation. Nordwall had convinced the captain of a replicated Canadian two-master to sail him and other Indians around the island, firing blanks from its cannon, while the proclamation was read to the press.
And the government didn't find it funny later when young Native Americans organized by Nordwall invaded the old prison island and occupied it for two years while the Nixon administration fumbled over contingency plans for counter-invasions and federal assaults to drive the Indians off.
"We cannot fight them man-to-man and expect to win," General Phil Sheridan is reputed to have said. "The only way to defeat the tribes is to kill their quartermaster, the buffalo."
Sixty-million buffalo were massacred, but it still took a relentless campaign of more than two years to deny them food and water before the last dozen Indians left Alcatraz.
By then, Adam Fortunate Eagle had himself lost close touch with the younger militants determined to make a no-compromise stand on the "Rock." Adam's own idea had been to trade it off for something better, to use the "show" of the occupation as a wedge for winning even more valuable federal surplus property.
It was, in a way, like the time he took the hair from Columbus. Adam had only volunteered his own family and some of their Indian friends from the San Francisco Bay Area after being appalled as a little regatta of dressed-up Italian
fishing boats annually reenacted the
Columbus discovery in San Francisco's Aquatic Park.
Alcatraz played to a particularly tough crowd. He wouldn't know it until years later, but Fortunate Eagle by then was developing his own special dossier in federal files, linked to not only Alcatraz, but Wounded Knee, DQU, Pitt River and a long list of more or lesser know Native American rebellions of that time, inspired, perhaps, by Alcatraz, but hardly needing the stand-up antics of Fortunate Eagle to carry it off.
Still, there was that nonsense that won wide publicity in Rome when Fortunate Eagle stepped off a 747 in full Chippewa regalia one afternoon and planted a spear in the ground proclaiming Italy as belonging to Native Americans by the same Right of Discovery used by Columbus in Hispaniola.
Maybe if the Pope himself hadn't wanted to meet Fortunate Eagle, the U.S. Government could have just let the whole thing pass as a stunt.
But there was the picture of the Pontiff offering his ring for the feathered red man to kiss, and of Adam, a little confused, offering his ring in return.
"Italy Discovered!" the delighted Roman press declared, and paparazzi descended on the new "Chief" wherever he went, even when it was on a frantic and language-barriered emergency search for toilet paper in his combat with what Fortunate Eagle called, "the Pope's Revenge."
If the government intended to bring such a renegade of one-liners under control, it was clear that only Sheridan had left the message on how to do it.
Between his stints as part Native American politician and part Indian prankster, Nordwall also operated a hardworking termite inspection service in the eastern suburbs of San Francisco Bay. First American Termite Company was the financial basis of all Fortunate Eagle's antics, the livelihood for himself, his wife Bobbie, and their three kids; and the reason he was able to afford a new Cadillac every two years. The quartermaster had been found.
Exactly how the investigation began and why it went so fast is still not certain, but by 1974, First American Termite Co. and its owner were accused of a whole raft of technical violations -- enough to close down the company -- and when the IRS got involved later, enough to send the founder and his family into bankruptcy.
So that's how the discoverer of Italy, the pirate of Alcatraz, the man who scalped Columbus, found himself on the front porch of his wife's tribal home watching dust devils spin up clouds from the alkali desert.
Geronimo, you know, toured with Buffalo Bill before he died in the snow of Oklahoma far from his home. Crazy Horse was stabbed in the back by an Indian bluecoat. Pushing past 50, Fortunate Eagle might just as well have felt luck to have time to write his memoirs.
Ah, but no. It didn't work with killing the buffalo, and it wouldn't work with just icing the termite company either. Drawing those circles in his mind, Fortunate Eagle was making a new plan.
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