Rock of Nations

A leader of the Alcatraz Occupation discusses its successful tactics in reversing the federal policy of Indian termination

Adam Fortunate Eagle (Nordwall) is one of the last remaining leaders of the Alcatraz Occupation. In November 1969, 79 “opportunistic Indian[s]” (as per an FBI memo) disembarked on the recently decommissioned prison island in the middle of the San Francisco Bay. They were protesting the plight of Native Americans throughout the United States, and their invasion of federal property lasted an impressive 19 months. This chapter of San Francisco’s tumultuous sixties is perhaps underemphasized only because the other events of the period are so many. And yet the occupation, which lasted until June 11, 1971 (when the 15 remaining occupiers were evicted at gunpoint by federal agents), is now beginning to get its due. Some credit it with inspiring Native American activism all over the country for the rest of the decade. In particular, it provided an example of the strength to be found in forging pantribal political alliances, with the occupiers referring to themselves as the Indians of All Tribes.

Like many activist movements, the occupiers’ internal politics were complicated and at times bitterly divided. As often happens with nonhierarchical activist groups, the leader was effectively chosen for them by the media, to some resentment. Reporters settled on the telegenic Richard Oakes, a 27-year-old student at San Francisco State College and Mohawk father of six. While he certainly was one of most prominent figures on the island, he left in January 1971 after his 12-year-old stepdaughter, Yvonne, died from falling down a stairwell in one of the abandoned prison buildings. The mantle then fell to John Trudell (Santee Dakota), previously the occupiers’ spokesperson on Radio Free Alcatraz. It was he who facilitated the dignified eviction later in 1971. LaNada Means Warjack, a UC Berkeley student, was also crucial in opening a bank account for the occupiers and managing its funds.

Adam Fortunate Eagle’s role was largely in laying the groundwork for the occupation. As chairman of the Intertribal Friendship House in Oakland, and later as chairman of the United Bay Area Council of American Indian Affairs, Adam helped develop the political foundation for a pantribal identity as early as 1962. For 16 years, he was key in the organization of powwows, dances, a teen rock band, and other cultural events that brought the Bay Area’s many Native Americans together across tribal lines. In November 1969, he organized for a small vessel to cruise around Alcatraz with several Native Americans on board in full ceremonial dress. Little more than a publicity stunt, it nevertheless grabbed the full attention of the regional press, gathering momentum for the real occupation. Once the occupation began, he never actually stayed on the island but played the “quartermaster,” succeeding in raising $80,000 for the island in just a few months. 

Of the original four key figures to the occupation, only Adam was contactable. Oakes was fatally shot in Mendocino County a year after having left the island, and Trudell died in 2015. Means Warjack lives in Idaho. Fortunate Eagle lives on a reservation in Fallon, Nevada, ever since the FBI’s COINTELPRO operations forced him into exile from his Bay Area home of San Leandro. He doesn’t have a computer, so I was only able to reach him by letter. He refused to conduct the interview over the phone, so early on Labor Day morning, I recruited two friends (one of whom had a car) and we drove the five and half hours from Berkeley to meet him.


Could you describe the community activism of the 1960s in the Bay Area? What made you and your fellow organizers feel it was worth doing, or that you could do it against so many odds?

The story of Alcatraz goes back longer than people realize. I start in 1933, when Hitler came into power and took over Germany. Now, one of the first things he did with the Jews was to get them to all provide the Nazi party with a list of their possessions. 1933. In 1943, the war was going on, 35,000 Native Americans were involved, including my own family. While we were fighting to defend our country, the country was plotting to steal the remaining 48 million acres. In 1943 the BIA put out a request to all federally recognized tribes to list the assets of their reservations — undeveloped resources. That sounds like Germany all over again, doesn’t it? So the tribes gave the government a full listing of their resources and those tribes became known as the Council of Energy Resource Tribes.

Then in 1953, Zimmerman, the assistant commissioner, was instructed to draw up a list of tribes in sequence of termination. The hit list, alright? And in 1953, the government passed House Resolution 108, commonly known as the Termination Act, to abolish all reservations, abrogate all treaties, relinquish the federal and Indian relationship, and close down the BIA. To implement the termination policy, the government followed that up in 1958 with the Relocation Program. Under that program, the government took Indians off the reservation — they’re going to terminate us, right? So they need to get rid of the Indians. That’s the amazing thing to the government: They found out the reservations were full of Indians! Relocation passed into law and they started shipping Indians off the reservations to eight major cities in the United States. From 1958 to 1969 the government had relocated 210,000 Indians. Now I don’t know if you know anything about the Trail of Tears of 1830 — all of the Indians to the east of the Mississippi were to be shipped to the West. Even though the Cherokees won their case in the Supreme Court, Jackson said, “Let the Supreme Court enforce their laws, I will enforce removal.” Sounds like Trump again, doesn’t it? He’s going to go his own damn trail, no matter what the law says! Or what the people say! And “of the people, by the people, for the people” does not apply to American Indians. We’ve never had a voice in the laws that were promulgated on our behalf. It remains to this day a colonialist system. Does that justify the takeover of Alcatraz? Doesn’t that just piss you off? [laughs]

In your memoirs, when you write about the proposal for what you wanted to do with Alcatraz you say that it wasn’t unrealistic, because of the history of oppression of Native Americans, but that it was idealistic, perhaps because you knew that you were making huge demands.

Remember I said Alcatraz represents, symbolically, Indian reservations? We’ve always been held captive on the reservations. When all these reservations were established, all these Indian wars of the West you read about, culminated with Custer. His purpose was to push Indians onto the reservations. And if you didn’t go, you’d die! They’d kill you. If you refused to go to a reservation, they’d shoot you and call you a renegade Indian. Justifiable homicide. Oh, gosh. You’re getting me all worked up. [28-second pause]

Knowledge, to the oppressor, is a danger. Pol Pot of Cambodia put that into action by slaughtering millions of his own people, starting with the intellectuals. See, we’re a dangerous people, that’s why I’m an enemy of the state! I’m just reciting a very small portion of what happened leading up to Alcatraz.

What were the precise conditions of the ’60s that made occupying Alcatraz possible, in terms of what other people were doing in their activism at the time?

I said the 1950s was the time of conformity. During the aftermath of WWII and under the Eisenhower administration. Conformity was the way of life because we’re happy! The war was over! Now we got a whole bunch of new kids coming up. The baby boomers. Conformity was the way of life. The years that Bobbie and I got married in 1949 and we moved to the Bay Area in 1950 to start raising our family.

I studied to be a commercial artist at Haskell Institute. At the outbreak of the Korean War, I was a commercial artist at one of the largest commercial art studios in Kansas City. I was a professional artist until all four of my brothers were recalled into the military for service in Korea. My mother called me and said “Come out and spend what little time you have left before you’re called.” Now, Bobbie is pregnant with our first child. And we’re in Kansas City. We’re a long ways from the reservation. We kind of figured that “Hey, if I get called to service, I don’t want Bobbie to be left alone in Kansas City having a baby.” So that’s when we decided to move. She was working as a secretary. I was a commercial artist. Boarding school kids! We took our savings and we hopped a plane. A Constellation. The Connie. Oh, it was a beautiful aircraft. Kansas City to Phoenix, Phoenix to San Francisco.

My mother lined up a temporary job for me. I wanted to be an artist, but I got a temporary job in termite control. During the 1950s I worked my way up from a helper, to crew foreman, to inspector; I went on to become manager, vice president of a company and then on to own my own company in the 1960s.

In the late 1950s, we started to see the influence of Indians coming into the Bay Area. Veterans of Korea? Yes. But then a whole bunch of new guys. And we didn’t know about Relocation then. Cy Williams, a Chippewa from Cass Lake, Minnesota, would come to the bowling alley where Bobbie and I were in the league. Cy and Aggie would sit in the audience there, and he talked to us, and would tell us about all the Indians in the Bay Area. We knew the beginnings of the powwows in the Bay Area because we were there. But then in 1962 Cy kept after me, he says, “Adam, we need leadership.” There were all these diverse tribal groups at the Friendship House: The Sioux club, the Chippewa club, the Sports Committee, the United Paiutes, the Pomo Club [laughs] . . . All these different little groups came together and so I organized them in 1962. That got me on the trail. I was working my way up professionally, taking care of wife and family, but at the same time starting to give back.

Do you think you could do it today?

Times they are a-changin’ [grinning]. That’s a simple answer to that. No. The circumstances of Alcatraz were unique. I gave you the outline of that: declared a surplus property. To an opportunistic Indian? Go for it. By that time, I had served as Chairman of the United Bay Area Council for American Indian Affairs for 6 years. I was experienced as a leader working with 12 affiliated tribal groups. I had my own mini United Nations of Native Americans right there in Oakland. I was chairman for 6 years and I went on to be chairman for a total 14 years in the Bay Area before I was exiled.

In 1975, the Indian Self-Determination Act gave the tribes more self-government, instead of relying on the BIA to be our middleman. They would rake off the government grant money before it went to the tribes — kind of like a finder’s fee (there’s another term that they don’t use, not a finder’s fee but to “cover administrative costs”). What was left went to the tribes for minimal health care services, education programs, basic things. Leading up to Alcatraz all of these were being cut back. They were putting the economic squeeze on the reservations, preparing them for termination. That’s how they played it. So times they are a-changin’. We’ve got it pretty good now. With the Indian Gaming Act of 1980, we’ve got casinos now! Wouldn’t have happened without Alcatraz. Via Indian termination and Relocation, and under the Nixon administration, we won the war! But they never told us. Alcatraz was in a way the last fight. And we won.

I mentioned Custer. The Sioux, Cheyenne, and Arapaho wiped him out. But you know Custer went to the Little Bighorn with a bunch of Crow Indian scouts. See, the government used us against each other! Geronimo was captured because the government employed Apache scouts to lead them to him. Divide and conquer. A weird part of that Custer story reflects on us. I told you Bobbie’s name: Kills Among Many. And you know I’m an adopted Crow. That’s how I got the name. That’s “Good eagle/lucky eagle/eagle that has a good life/fortunate eagle.” I wanted to be different. Lucky Eagle, oh yeah we got lucky eagles out there on the reservation, but no Fortunate Eagles. Just one. My grandson got my name. In a naming ceremony. Going back to Custer, one of the scouts was named Curly. He went back to the steamboat to alert the captain that Custer had been wiped out. I’m an adopted Crow. His son and wife adopted me and later adopted Bobbie. And so by adoption, Curly the Crow scout is my grandfather, and he was with Custer on June 26, 1876. [laughs] See, we’re connected with history in so many strange ways!

Why do you think you had so much community support for the occupation?

Satire and humor. We won the hearts and minds of all those liberal people in the Bay Area. Eleven million people and a lot of them were in support of us. It was the also the Sausalito Indian Navy. Those three skippers that brought the Indians onto the island November 20. And ever since then, boat owners would be coming around bringing us supplies. There were so many boat owners in the Bay Area, they overwhelmed the Coast Guard that blockaded us for only three days before they gave up. [laughs] Circle the wagons! They were bringing turkeys and food and everything. The generosity. I didn’t live on the island because my mission was to help be the quartermaster. Money was going to provide for basic necessities that wasn’t going to come out of goods donations. In a matter of months we raised about $80,000 — a lot of money in those days. I went on television programs, radio talk programs, civic groups, Christian groups to give talks, always saying send it to the Bank of California, the Indian account, never give it to me. I never touched any of that money. I never wanted anybody to get the idea that I was exploiting Alcatraz for personal gain. In all the years that I was involved, I never took any salary. I never received any compensation, it has never been my aim.

Why was it important that the Proclamation be funny, and that humor pervaded the occupation as a whole?

Satire and humor win more friends than righteous anger or indignation. I call it action and reaction. The Proclamation makes a strong political historic statement utilizing humor to convey the message. In doing so, the public does not feel threatened. Satire and humor have long been the weapon of choice against the establishment. The occupation of Alcatraz stands as a prime example of protest using humor. Humor is the weapon of the downtrodden. Anger and hostility only serve to prolong the guilt complex of the dominant societies. If we’d gone “Argh, White Man, argh!” that would have got us nowhere! So bring him into the story, make him laugh! [laughs] The Black Panthers of Oakland, with their violent rhetoric, accomplished nothing.

What’s your advice, not only to Native American activists, but to others today?

Go in peace. [long pause] I don’t know if I’m the person to give advice. If anything, go by example. Don’t do as I say, but do as I do! With the fact that you’re in our home now. You see all these beautiful things around you? When Bobbie and I started off, everything was in one suitcase. Now we had that training, we had the education. And so we went off to make a life for ourselves and our family, and by extension even affected the entire Bay Area community, and by extension, nationally! But nationally, the tribes don’t understand about Alcatraz either. That’s a sad thing. If it wasn’t for Indians of All Tribes in ending Termination, where would the Indians be today? So I put out that hypothetical question. The conquest would have been complete.

But we achieved the impossible. We backed the government down. Now with the success of the casinos, the tribes, the economy, and the H.U.D. houses where before it was tarpaper shacks. Now we have H.U.D. houses, we have hot and cold running water. The economic and social development of our tribes has just expanded, I can’t say how much, it just depends on each reservation, but in our case. Age was never a concern! It’s what you can do that counts. Living on the Fallon Indian Reservation, I have lived in the shadows of history. Big shadow, huh?