Located on the eastern edge of California’s San Francisco Bay Area is the city of Livermore. Notable for being the home of the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and the California site of Sandia National Laboratories, it is also the most populous city in the Tri-Valley area, which comprises the Amador, Livermore and San Ramon valleys. In many ways it is your typical Northern California city, but what many visitors don’t realize is that this is also the home of a supposed cursed totem pole that has all kinds of weird stories floating around it, and which makes for a curious local legend.
The totem pole itself is an imposing site, fashioned of redwood and standing at an original height of 18 feet at Livermore’s Centennial Park. It is certainly an impressive piece of artwork, completely hand-carved in meticulous detail, topped by a majestic eagle sitting at the top, but it doesn’t seem like it should be particularly imbued with paranormal forces, yet it supposedly is. In order to understand the story of the cursed totem pole it is perhaps best to get behind the story of the man who made it, the eccentric artist Adam “Fortunate Eagle” Nordwall. Born to a Swedish father and Chippewa mother, he came into the world on a Chippewa reservation in 1929, eventually in his adult years settling in the San Francisco Bay Area, where he lived with his family and owned a termite extermination company.
He seemed pretty normal, actually, but Nordwall had another life as well, becoming heavily involved with Native American activism and serving as the president of the Bay Area Council of Native Americans. He was known for his rather flamboyant and bold statements and antics, such as the time he infiltrated the Italian Americans’ San Francisco Columbus Day play and festivities in 1964 and ran amok, using a Native American ceremonial stick to go around knocking off the wigs of performers who were acting out the historic meeting of Columbus and the Native Americans. In 1969 Nordwall organized the infamous occupation of Alcatraz island by Native Americans, which lasted until 1971, and he was considered a bit of an extremist nutcase at the time. He seemed to have a thing against the Italian community, because the following year he went to all the way to actual Italy dressed in full Native garb just to proclaim that he was claiming the right to the country by right of discovery, just as Columbus had done. When this stunt got him an audience with the Pope, instead of kissing the ring he offered his own ring, sparking outrage among Catholics.
In 1974, he created the totem pole and dedicated it to Livermore’s centennial anniversary, which seems like a pretty nice thing to do until you consider that the only reason he donated it was because the people who originally commissioned him to make, a local shopping center, didn’t pay up. The city graciously accepted the gift, and then went about cutting off several feet from the bottom before it was to be officially installed. This might not seem like no big thing, but to Nordwall it was a very big deal. He apparently became absolutely incensed, calling it a desecration to his heritage and demanding that the city restore the totem pole to its former glory. The Livermore city council refused, and this was apparently enough to warrant a good cursing. Nordwall said he was going to use ancient Native American magic to curse the city’s sewer system, which might have seemed pretty funny until shortly after the Livermore sewer system actually did experience a major sewage backup that cost a lot of money to fix. The city ended up restoring the totem to its full height, but never actually apologized, which made Nordwall refuse to lift the mysterious curse, resulting in frequent sewage problems over the years that go above and beyond mere coincidence.
The curse has been said to have had other effects as well. In 1974 a time capsule was also buried to commemorate the centennial, but when it was dug up in 1999 it was nowhere to be found, sparking a frenzied search for it. It would eventually be found directly under the totem pole, far from its original resting place. Nordwall would strongly deny having anything to do with it, although he suggested the curse might be to blame. There have even been rather sinister reports of death associated with the supposed curse of the Livermore totem pole. Two city officials were interviewed for a documentary about Livermore’s history, during which they mentioned the curse of the totem pole, partially in jest, but less than two weeks later both would be dead. Apparently, this was enough to have Nordwall later lift the curse, allegedly holding a ritual to call on the good spirits to bless, purify and cleanse the totem pole, although he has since denied this ever happened.
In the years since, Nordwall has been a bit evasive on just how serious the curse was, but he would mention it in a book about his history of political exploits and life, colorfully titled Scalping Columbus and Other Damn Indian Stories. He says that he does not recall actually lifting the curse, and said of it “Isn’t it amazing that 45 years later the legend of the curse still lives on. Since then I have gone on from totem pole carver to become a published author.” It is hard to know if this was all just a prank on the part of Nordwall, mixed in with a little coincidence and PR, but curse or not it is at the very least an entertaining little local tale that is still talked about to this very day.