Native American Films – Recommended Viewing

Robin Menken’s review of Contrary Warrior plus other review blurbs

Review by Robin Menken – March 24, 2010

John Ferry’s “Contrary Warrior- The Life and Times Of Adam Fortunate Eagle” is a moving portrait of the renowned 80-year old Native American artist- activist Adam Fortunate Eagle Nordwall. As detailed in his first book “Pipestone: A Boy’s Life in an Indian Boarding School”, Nordwall fondly remembers his boyhood in the Government Pipestone Boarding School (Pipestone, Minn,) Unlike most recounts of the boarding school experience where young native Americans were socialized in American “values”, Nordwall describes his stay as a way out of the grinding poverty of reservation life during the Depression.

Nordwall and wife Bobbie (who he met at the Haskell Institute in Lawrence, Kansas) moved to San Francisco where he became a successful businessman. Prejudice towards Native Americans turned him activist. The strategist of the landmark 1969 takeover of Alcatraz, Nordwall negotiated behind the scenes with Nixon’s federal officials. Nixon eventually signed papers to invalidate the Indian Termination Act. Termed an “assimilation program”, the act ended tribal autonomy, forced Native American’s onto the welfare roll, ended education and the Indian Health Service, while ushering in the wholesale government takeover, and ensuing privatization, of resource-rich tribal lands.

Nordwall, termed an “enemy of the people” by the government, lost his business and moved to the Paiute-Shoshone Reservation, Bobbie’s home. There he discovered his métier as a pipestone artist and sculptor of ceremonial pipes. Now a member of the Whistling Water Clan of the Crow peoples, the revered cultural leader, featured on the cover of the Smithsonian Institution’s” Native People’s Magazine”, wrote two books on his activist years- “Heart of the Rock” and “Alcatraz, Alcatraz”.

Nordwall tells his story in his own words. During the Depression, his father (a World War 1 veteran gassed in the trenches) and uncle moved to the Chippewa Reservation to work as mechanics. The Swedish-American brothers married Chippewa sisters. After eight kids, Fortunate Eagle’s fundamentalist father lost his “party-girl” wife to a handsome Sioux Indian lover. His disillusioned father began proselytizing on the reservation. Trusting in God to heal him he failed to treat a festering World War 1 wound. Unable to pay for a train ticket to travel to a clinic, Uncle Ernie dragged him onto a boxcar. The feverish man died in his brother’s arms.

Five year-old Nordwall and five siblings were sent to a boarding school with members of six other tribes. Indian directors Mr. & Mrs. Burns became his “new parents.” He had no regrets leaving the disease-ridden tarpaper shack or the reservation where malnutrition was rampant. By 1935, kids were allowed to speak Native tongues at the school. Only American cussing was forbidden. Autodidact Nordwall read every Indian book in the school library. He illustrates with a collection of books once found in his school library. Making model airplanes may have inspired his later sculpting. Colorful storytelling gives the film its folksy charm. He describes seeing his beautiful Bobbie for the first time “at the chow line at breakfast”. He tried to stay on at the Institute, but wound up sign painting in Lawrence, Kansas then Oklahoma City.

A tribal timber settlement of two hundred dollars, gave him the courage to invite Bobbie to join him. Bobbie became a carhop then worked as a secretary for thirty-five dollars a week. Katz drugstore paid him twenty-five dollars a week, with free lunch! His brother suggested the newly solvent couple marry. The moonlighting Justice of the Peace conducted marriages at his junkyard. “The medicine is good- now I have a life-time mate.” They moved to the San Francisco Bay Area, where a meeting with Cy and Aggie Williams and returned Native Vietnam Vets opened his eyes politically. In the sixties, the Indian Relocation program dispersed Indians to major cities. Once they received a paycheck of any amount, the BIA cut them off. Working his way up from foreman, by 1968 he owned First American Termite Company. When Alcatraz was declared surplus property, he and his friends began strategizing Native use of the Island. His satirical Proclamation offered $24.00, beads and cloth (Manhattan’s sale price) to the government to buy the abandoned penitentiary. Home movies of the takeover and archival photos illustrate the historical moment when the boats to take them to the Island failed to appeared. He talked a two-masted tall ship into taking them across. Richard Ochs jumped overboard, others followed. Most had to be rescued. It was a brilliant photo op for the boatloads of photographers.

“In the course of 19 months we changed the course of history.” Vetoing a covert plan to take the island back by force, Nixon officially repudiated the Termination and signed in wide-sweeping Indian Affairs reforms. “We saved the island for all Americans.” Nordwall, who received his Indian name (Fortunate Eagle) from a Crow Indian he helped, recounts his first art commission. In 1970, he carved a Totem Pole honoring Livermore, California’s centennial. When the shopping center cancelled his payment, he donated the pole to the city. He was appalled to see his pole, truncated beyond repair, raised at Livermore Park. The City claimed they had no money to restore the pole. Fortunate Eagle laid a curse on the city’s sewage system. Once the sewers backed up, the city paid him to lift the curse and restored his pole (with a plaque) to its original glory. On a trip to Rome, he planted a spear, claiming to discover Italy in the name of the Native American peoples. The Pope asked to meet him. Years of absurdist government harassment fill out the tale. Indians are arrested for the use of eagle feathers, as was Fortunate Eagle, while the killing of eagles by ranchers remains unpunished. We tour the green roundhouse Cultural Center he’s building on their reservation. Optimistic Fortunate Eagle Nordwall is a national Treasure and Ferry’s film is a worthy introduction to his life.

Quotes from other recent reviews:

“Engrossing.” – Aly Comingore, Santa Barbara Independent

” Illuminating and entertaining.” – John Hanson, Cannes award-winning Filmmaker (Northern Lights)

“I have watched it twice and will watch it again – it is that compelling a story. He (Fortunate Eagle) speaks with great humor, truth and passion. I believe this movie will be enjoyed by Indians and non-Indians alike and suspect many Indian people will be able to relate to his life story.” – Bob Brown, Whispering Wind Magazine

“Viewers with a strong interest in Native American culture will appreciate the distinctive insights and compelling anecdotes.”- Phil Hall, Video Librarian Magazine

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