Since its debut in 1971, an anti-pollution ad showing a man in Native American garb shedding a single tear at the sight of smokestacks and trash encroaching on a once-unblemished landscape has become an indelible fixture of TV pop culture.
It has been referenced over the decades since in shows like “The Simpsons” and “South Park” and in internet memes. But now a Native American advocacy group that secured the rights to the long-parodied public service announcement is pulling it, saying it was always inappropriate.
The so-called “Crying Indian” with his buckskins and long tresses made the late Iron Eyes actor Cody a recognizable face in homes across the country. But for many Native Americans, the public service announcement was a painful reminder of the lingering stereotypes they face.
The non-profit organization that originally commissioned the ad, Keep America Beautiful, had long considered how to pull the ad and announced this week that it was doing so by transferring ownership of the rights to the National Indian Congress of Indians. ‘America.
“Keep America Beautiful wanted to be careful and deliberate about how we transferred this iconic advertisement/public service announcement to the appropriate owners,” said nonprofit spokesperson Noah Ullman via email. . “We spoke to several Indigenous peoples organizations and were thrilled to identify the National Congress of American Indians as a potential custodian.”
NCAI plans to terminate use of the announcement and monitor any unauthorized use.
“The NCAI is proud to assume the role of monitoring the use of this ad and ensuring that it is used only in historical context; this ad was inappropriate then and remains inappropriate today,” said NCAI Executive Director Larry Wright, Jr. “The NCAI looks forward to putting this ad to bed for good.
When it premiered in the 1970s, the advertisement caused a stir. This led to Iron Eyes Cody filming three follow-up PSAs. He has spent more than 25 years making public appearances and visiting schools on behalf of the anti-litter campaign, according to a Associated Press obituary
From there, Cody, who was Italian-American but claimed to have Cherokee heritage through his father, was cast as a Native American character, appearing in more than 80 films. Most of the time his persona was simply “Indian”, “Indian Chief” or “Indian Joe”.
His films from the 1950s through the 1980s included “Sitting Bull”, The Great Sioux Massacre”, Nevada Smith, “A Man Called Horse”, and “Ernest Goes to Camp”. On television he appeared in “Bonanza”, ” Gunsmoke” and “Rawhide” among others. He also served as a technical advisor on Native American issues on film sets.
Dr. Jennifer J. Folsom, a professor of journalism and media communications at Colorado State University and a citizen of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma, remembers watching the public service announcement as a child.
“At that point, every person that showed up with braids and buckskins, on TV or anywhere in the movies, I snuck up on that because it was such a thing. rare to see,” said Folsom, whose areas of study include Native American pop culture. “I saw how people were littering, and I saw how streams and rivers were polluted.”
But growing up, Folsom noticed how little media coverage was given to Native American environmental activists.
“There’s no agency for this sad so-called Indian sitting in a canoe, crying,” Folsom said. “I think it’s hurt public perception and support for true Indigenous people who are doing things to protect the land and protect the environment.”
She applauded Keep America Beautiful’s decision as a “proper decision.” That means a trust group can help control the narrative that advertising has been promoting for more than 50 years, she said.
The power of advertising has arguably already faded as Indigenous and Indigenous youth grow up with a greater awareness of stereotyping and cultural appropriation. TikTok has many examples of Native people parodying or taking down advertising, Folsom said.
Robert “Tree” Cody, adopted son of Iron Eyes Cody, said the ad was based on “good intention and good heart”.
“It was one of the top 100 commercials,” said Robert Cody, a registered member of the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian community in Arizona.
And it reminded him of his time with his dad, said Cody, who lives in Santa Ana Pueblo, New Mexico.
“I remember a lot of things, even when he went to a film set to finish his movies and stuff,” Cody said. “I remember going to Universal (Studios), Disney, places like that.”
His wife, Rachel Kee-Cody, can’t help but be a little sad that a publicity that means so much to their family is being pushed aside. But she is resigned to the decision.
“You know, times change too. You keep going no matter how much it changes,” she said. “Disappointment. … It will pass.