Historic scoop? Or impossible puzzle?
Activist/author/prospector Adam Fortunate Eagle might have found a missing link in New-World history, but the puzzle of verification is missing some pieces
Adam Fortunate Eagle lives in a gray doublewide on the Fallon Indian Reservation a few miles east of Fallon. This community is spread over miles of flat, high-desert farmland that looks a lot like any other rural valley in Northern Nevada: a dairy farm, fields, acres of open space, mountains in the distance, neighbors a few miles apart from each other.
Fortunate Eagle’s yard, alive with chirping songbirds and the crow of a rooster, is a hub of creative industry—larger-than-life bears and Indian chiefs chiseled from logs, stone carvings, a swing set for the great grandkids, and a 12-sided roundhouse with a wood-shingled roof, based on a design popular with the Pomo Indians of California. Inside, it looks like a long-lost museum. The corners are thick with cobwebs. Pedestals hold dozens of bronze sculptures and stone carvings he’s made over the years. There are necklaces made of beads, headdresses made of feathers, rugs, furniture, and paintings made by Fortunate Eagle’s wife, Bobbie, of Indian warriors on horseback, dressed for battle.
Fortunate Eagle will turn 87 in July, and his inventory of artwork isn’t the only thing that’s eclectic.
“Have you Googled me yet?” he asked. He doesn’t use Google himself, or any communications technology newer than a fax machine. But his life has been a long road of hardships, triumphs, adventures and honors, many of which are detailed online, in print and in film. He was born in 1929 in Minnesota to a Chippewa mother and a Swedish father. When he was 5, his father died. Soon after, he went to an Indian boarding school. He spent much of his childhood there and later wrote a book about the experience. In 1969, he led the Native American occupation of Alcatraz Island. He wrote a book about that too. He’s put a curse on the city of Livermore, California’s sewer system. He’s met Pope John Paul II.
“I refused to kiss his ring,” Fortunate Eagle said with a grin, “And he refused to kiss mine.”
He’s the subject of a documentary film, Contrary Warrior: The Life and Times of Adam Fortunate Eagle, and he starred in another documentary, playing the voice of Sitting Bull. His latest project? Trying to clear up an archaeological mystery that he thinks might contribute to rewriting a chapter of world history.A fortuitous find
Fortunate Eagle pulled a white, cardboard bankers box out from underneath a side table in his living room. The words “Bronze Bowls” were written on the lid in chunky capital letters in red magic marker. Inside the box, there are eight bronze bowls stacked together and wrapped in a beige bath towel.
The bowls are each about the size of a cereal bowl. The rims are jagged and primitive looking, and most of them have a worn, red patina on the outside. Fortunate Eagle wonders if it’s a Chinese lacquer.
“So, the provenance,” he said. “It was in East Oakland, in the base of the Oakland Hills, above Foothill Boulevard, in 1955. I’m a licensed termite inspector, an amateur prospector and a rock hound. I finished making the inspection of this home, at the base of this hill, and after I finished that I looked up the hillside. There’s a ravine. … As a rock hound, I’m looking for all kinds of stuff. I hadn’t gone 100 feet up that ravine, and two feet under the dirt I saw something metallic. Eight bronze bowls clustered, stacked together.” He said he took the bowls home and didn’t think much about them.
“I knew I had something strange and different,” he said. “I’ve saved those bowls for 61 years. I collected stuff and sold stuff, but I kept them for all these years because I didn’t know what to do with them.”
Just last year, he came across a book titled 1421, The Year China Discovered America. It was written in 2002 by a British author named Gavin Menzies, who put forth a theory that the Chinese had explored America all the way back in the year 1421, 70 years before Columbus made his voyage across the Atlantic Ocean. Menzies concluded that the Chinese must have visited the eastern part of the San Francisco Bay. That’s right where Oakland is, where Fortunate Eagle said he’d dug up the bowls.
When he needs to reach someone by email or save something from a website, he does so through his grandson, Jesse Windriver, who lives next door. Windriver prints out email correspondence with historians and photos that might hold some clues to the artifacts’ origins, and Fortunate Eagle keeps them in manila file folders. He pulled a black and white printout from a file and described the picture.
“Here is the ancient Chinese bowl,” he said. “It’s very similar. It’s so darn close,” he added, comparing the photo with the bowls he’d unpacked from the bankers box. “And do you think they could be almost 600 years old?”Uncovering the mystery
Soon after reading the book 1421, Fortunate Eagle wrote an email to Gavin Menzies. Actually, he wrote a letter in long-hand on a yellow legal pad. Windriver typed it and emailed it. Menzies’ assistant wrote back to say he was excited about the potential find, and he offered to put a photo of the bowls on his research team’s website, where there’s a public forum for readers to weigh in on identifying ancient artifacts.
While Fortunate Eagle and Menzies’ team can easily picture the bowls being Chinese artifacts from the early 1400s, other experts aren’t so sure. Many scholars disagree with Menzies about the Chinese having arrived in the New World so early on.
Veronica Sese, a representative from the Chinese American Historical Society in San Francisco, said that according to her organization, Chinese contact with California in 1421 is “a myth.” According to CAHS documents, the Chinese never set foot in California until the late 1700s, about 350 years after Fortunate Eagle’s ancient Chinese bowls would have been left in the ravine.
Fortunate Eagle said he’s eager to submit the bowls to metallurgical testing. However, Carl Nesbitt, a professor of metallurgical engineering at the Mackay School of Earth Sciences and Engineering at the University of Nevada, Reno, said there is not a dependable metallurgical test that could verify the origin of the bowls. The only clue Nesbitt had to offer was that bronze and brass don’t tend to hold up to the elements very well.
He said, “Bronze does tend to get pretty patina’ed.” Also, some metals and alloys could suffer from corrosion or oxidation. While the bowls in question have a matte black patina on the inside and the worn, red coating on the outside, they don’t appear compromised by either.
So what’s next for Fortunate Eagle and his bronze bowls? Are they the “historic scoop” that he hopes they are? He said he will gladly submit the bowls to any kind of additional testing or verification.