Review: 'Scalping Columbus and Other Damn Indian Stories,' by Adam Fortunate Eagle

  • Article by: MARGARET NOODIN , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Updated: July 18, 2014 - 2:14 PM

FICTION: Short stories — memoir, truth, tall tale and exaggeration — about growing up Indian.

"Scalping Columbus and Other Damn Indian Stories," by Adam Fortunate Eagle

Adam Fortunate Eagle is what another Minnesota writer, Jim Northrup, would call an American American. An ethnographic tangle, Fortunate Eagle is an Ojibwe now living on a Paiute-Shoshone reservation who attended Pipestone Boarding School in Minnesota with Dakota, Oneida, Potawatomi, Mandan, Arikaree, Hidatsa, Sac and Fox kids. He then graduated from Haskell Institute with members of all American Indian nations and moved to San Francisco, one of seven centers of the Urban Indian Relocation Program.

All of this explains why he went on to become an active member of Indians of All Tribes, a group that occupied Alcatraz during the Indian civil rights era.

He is a man of many perspectives who sums up his experiences in “Scalping Columbus,” saying, “In life you have to go with the hand you are dealt. Only I was able to deal myself additional hands that added to the fullness of my life.”

Readers will have fun sorting which cards were dealt and which cards were added.

“Scalping Columbus” is full of tall tales, even tall turtles, and comes with a “Percentage of Bullshit” list to help (or playfully hinder) as readers sort out the truth about ancient Lake Lahonton and Gen. Fremont’s cannon. There are no footnotes or claims to objective purity. There is only one main lesson: Life is lived better with stories.

Fortunate Eagle demonstrates how maintaining memories, even elaborating upon and embellishing them, can take everyone’s addiction to gossip and “reality” to a new level. Relying on time-tested tribal traditions, he tells stories that center on the audience, tuck truth into jokes and leave grandchildren wondering if there is more to life than what they can find online.

He has spent many years “learning to fit the pieces of my life into the larger whole of a pan-Indian consciousness that is itself a consequence of the government’s long effort to deculturate and alienate us from our own tribal traditions.” His book shows how history sometimes needs a little retelling, a bit of editing and an insertion of satire.

When an FBI agent in one of his stories accuses him of having “a warped sense of humor,” he replies, “You white men have a warped sense of history.” This kind of quick reframing of reality is how Fortunate Eagle has survived, and it is the importance of that nimble response, and the delight of passing it on, that he shares with those who are listening. Just like his granddaughter, readers are likely to ask, “Can you tell me another damn Indian story?” But look a little closer and you might discover that “you just experienced one, my dear.”

Margaret Noodin is a poet, assistant professor at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and an alumna of the University of Minnesota. She is the author of “Bawaajimo: A Dialect of Dreams in Anishinaabe Language and Literature.”

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    Review: Fortunate Eagle demonstrates how elaborating and even embellishing memories and tucking truth into jokes can bring “reality” to a new level.

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