FALLON, Nev. – An American treasure with a tremendous personality is how John Ferry, director for Lillimar Pictures, describes the subject of his most recent documentary, Adam Fortunate Eagle Nordwall.
Nordwall is an acclaimed artist, sculptor, activist, writer, teacher, ceremonial pipe and headdress maker and leader. He attended the Pipestone Boarding School in Pipestone, Minn. in the 1930s and has written a book titled “Pipestone: A Boy’s Life in an Indian Boarding School.” The University of Oklahoma Press is publishing the book, which is expected to be in print by early next year. His book tells a different story from most that spent time in an Indian boarding school, portraying a positive experience and a way, during the depression, of avoiding the overwhelming poverty, hunger and disease of living on a reservation.
Nordwall has written two other books, “Alcatraz, Alcatraz” and “Heart of the Rock,” both about the occupation of the former penitentiary site in 1969.
Filming for the documentary began May 14 on the Paiute-Shoshone reservation in Fallon, Nev. and shows Nordwall talking about his childhood experiences in the boarding school and meeting his wife while attending Haskell Indian Nations University in Lawrence, Kan. He then describes his move to the San Francisco Bay Area in the 1950s where he became a successful businessman and an active member of the local American Indian community. He quickly realized they needed to become more organized and set out to improve their situation.
A sculpture made by Adam Fortunate Eagle Nordwall of a Native American mother and her child.
This eventually led to the Indian takeover of Alcatraz Island. For 19 months, Nordwall, then an activist for Indian rights, was the planner of the takeover and the main figure in negotiating with federal officials who were sent over almost daily by President Nixon. This led to Nixon signing papers repudiating the Indian Termination Act and declaring it no longer valid. A series of reforms were then implemented in urban areas and on reservations with improved health and welfare programs for American Indians.
The 85-minute documentary is currently being edited and is expected to be done in September. “This is a portrait of a man told in his own words,” said Ferry, who is co-producer with his wife, Grace De Soto Ferry. “It is a rich experience and I believe the film will inspire people to have the confidence they can achieve great things – just as Adam did. He came from utter poverty and managed to rise to a position of owning his own company and being a leader of his people.” Nordwall, who will turn 80 in July, was 42 when he received the Indian name he uses today: Fortunate Eagle – bestowed on him by a Crow Indian for whom he did a favor.
One of his most remembered daredevil feats happened at a park in San Francisco where every year Bay Area Italian Americans gathered for a Columbus Day pageant to re-enact Columbus’ discovery of America. In 1968, as president of the Bay Area Council of American Indians, Nordwall successfully talked the event organizer, who portrayed Columbus, into using real Indians in the ceremony instead of Boy Scouts in costumes. However, Nordwall continued to be irritated that Indians were not included in other parts of the celebration.
So, Nordwall wrote his own scene into the script and when Columbus climbed out of his boat and headed up the beach to “discover San Francisco,” Nordwall extended his arm with a ceremonial Indian stick. Columbus bowed. Then Nordwall flicked off Columbus’ toupee in protest. A bald Columbus was on all fours grinning, but the Indians were not invited back the next year.
Born on the Red Lake Reservation near Red Lake, Minn., Nordwall is a storyteller who advocates using humor to make a point as opposed to being confrontational. “He thought the Wounded Knee incident in 1973 was wrong because of its violent approach,” Ferry said.
Today he and his wife, Bobbie, live on the Paiute-Shoshone Reservation where she is a member. In his Round House Gallery he displays his artwork, some of which have sold for thousands of dollars and won awards – carved statues of bears and people, ceremonial pipes and petroglyphs carved on pieces of volcanic rock. He has also traveled the pow wow circuit as a traditional dancer and lectured at universities.
Ferry said he plans to pitch the documentary to PBS, the History and Biography Channels and make a debut in the DVD market as well. “I would love for people to become interested in the subject and see the film. I also hope they will become interested in Adam’s work and life.”
John and Grace Ferry are also the producers of the 2006 documentary “Sitting Bull: A Stone in My Heart,” which won best documentary at the Big Water Film Festival in Wisconsin. “Adam wants young people to learn about their heritage and be proud of it, to retain their culture,” John said. “He has done a tremendous amount to help the plight of the American Indian over the years.”
Involved in the production of documentary films for more than three decades, Ferry worked with his mentor and Oscar-winning documentary filmmaker Robert Snyder, who was the son-in-law of Buckminster Fuller, the subject of two of his films; 1968’s “Buckminster Fuller on Spaceship Earth” and three years later, “The World of Buckminster Fuller.”
For more information e-mail John at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit www.sittingbullfilm.com.