Authenticity, Commercials, Crying Indian, Environmentalism, Indian, Iron Eyes Cody, Mother Night, Pollution, White Indians
Few commercials have been as memorable as the ‘crying Indian’ from the seventies, and I reckon few commercials have had more impact on people’s behavior. The crying Indian left quite a mark on American popular culture.
I was a kid when I first saw that image, and I distinctly recall the sense of shame I felt upon watching it. It wasn’t just that I’d seen people littering like that, I’d done it myself. In fact, littering was pretty damned common back in those days, hence the commercial! I don’t think it’s a stretch to suggest the image of that crying Indian moved a lot of people to rethink their behavior.
Some of it anyway.
So, I was pretty damned surprised to learn many years later that the crying Indian belonged to a rather unusual tribe. He was Italian. ‘Iron Eyes Cody’ was born Espera Oscar de Corti. He had been playing Indian parts in the movies ever since the 1930s. Cody claimed Cherokee and Cree ancestry during much of that time, but this appears to have been a fabrication.
It’s tempting to think of Cody as an outright fraud, but that doesn’t begin to cover the facts of the matter. By all accounts, he seems to have actually lived the life he proclaimed. Cody married a native woman and adopted native children. He assumed a Native American identity on and off-screen, supported native causes, and essentially became the role he played in real life. Just what the process might have been in his own mind is something of an open question at this point, albeit one that most of us will never have an answer to. He is a rather successful example of a white Indian, a non-Indian who went native, so to speak.
One could well wish the ‘crying Indian’ had been a ‘real Indian’, and it’s hard not to feel a little betrayed to learn the truth of Cody’s ancestry, and yet he still remains a sympathetic figure. It’s tough to let him off the hook entirely for his self-presentation, but it’s also tough to be too hard on him for it. His story reminds me of an old line from Kurt Vonnegut’s book Mother Night; “We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.”
By that standard I’d say Cody did pretty well in life.
The photo above was taken from Cody’s obituary in the Los Angeles Times. Cody has his own Snopes page of course, and the Wiki article on him isn’t bad. Findagrave also has a decent write-up. It’s interesting to note that these sources provide different times and dates for Cody’s birth, with the L.A. Times piece coming in as the outlier with 1916 and Fort Gibson, Oklahoma. The others tell us Cody was born in Louisiana, and in 1904. Cody also features prominently in the documentary, Reel Injun, which is definitely worth a watch.
Maria Falvey said:
What a great icon from my childhood.
Hollywood and advertising sell you dreams – I have a feeling the ad agency knew the truth but were happy to overlook it.
Robert A. Vella said:
“He was Italian. ‘Iron Eyes Cody’ was born Espera Oscar de Corti.”
As a first generation Italian-American, I’ve known this for some time. American culture has always been prone to lumping different ethnic groups together in the “other” category, so-to-speak.
And the White Lion Roars! said:
Remember that this commercial was made before truth in advertising laws went into effect, so in context it was just as okay for this Italian actor to play an Indian as it was for Chuck Connors to play Geronimo, or the disgusting Charlton Heston to play Moses. And, since the point of the commercial was advertising the horribility (probably not a word, but should be,) of littering, what does the ethnicity of the messenger matter at all?
I think I missed all the stories about his non-Native American heritage. But, I definitely remember the commercial, and how powerful an image it was.
I think most of Hollywood including the native community, just seemed to accept his native identity. It’s come out in public more as a result of the movie, Reel Injun. Agreed though, it was a powerful image.
You can’t imagine what sort of troubling things the whole “white Indian” brings up for me. I’m really tempted to understand Cody. As I think you know, I was adopted as a child. The paper from the adoption agency says that my birth mother’s ethnic background was “English, French and American Indian.” That’s what my mother, told me when I was little. When I got older, she gave me the papers she had from the adoption agency and that was what was written. Now, if you’re told this as a kid, of course you believe it. That’s your reality. Everybody assumed that my birth mother was “half-Indian”, which made me a “quarter-Indian.” Eventually, I realized that the paper was in fact very vague and I really didn’t know anything. Now, I figure that the half and quarter business is because people like even numbers.
When I got older, in college and as a young adult, people started accusing me of lying. I became hyper-aware of every white guy that ever wrote a book claiming to be an Indian, and, if I wasn’t aware, somebody I knew was bound to make me aware. I started getting really, really uncomfortable when people asked my ethnic background, which people always ask because it’s not obvious. People would ask if I could prove it. I went through a million convoluted possible answers to satisfy people without outright lying. I basically dropped the “American Indian” when talking to strangers. Sometime, though, people would find out and then I’d get some long lecture on how I should be “proud of my heritage.” They were mistakenly thinking that I was “hiding” it because I’d internalized racist ideas and I was “embarrassed to be Native American.” By that point, I just wanted the whole conversation to stop. (I experienced some flat out racism in Canada, but that was actually far easier to take than the accusations of my good liberal friends in New York that I was just making it up to be different or to get attention or that I was confused. I was confused alright, but they were the ones confusing me.)
It gets crazier, though. First of all, my mother was (is) a socially conscious progressive type of person who thought I should know about my “heritage.” (Culture is acquired, so it’s not my “heritage,” but that’s a rant for another day.) We lived in New Jersey, so that mainly meant through books. She also has a bad habit of telling everyone she meets that I’m part Indian. I’ve finally broken her of that habit, but I was over forty when she finally stopped. As I became aware of the white Indian phenomenon, I actually started avoiding people who were native. I feel bad now for a couple of poor fellows that tried picking me up and got rejected in a rather curt way.
Well, this is getting longer than I intended when I started. I hope you don’t mind if I go ahead and finish.
There were a few reasons I wanted to find my biological mother, but this was a big one. I wanted to know the “truth.” Yeah, there’s a reason why it’s in quotes. You’d think I would have read enough about post modernism in college to know how slippery the truth can be. I figured if I found out that I wasn’t part Indian, I’d just be happy being a normal white person without all that stupid baggage, and, if I was, then at least I’d have the confidence to tell the people who thought I was lying to go to hell.
Now, you know as well as I know that, if people asked my ethnic background and I included Native American as part of the mix, the next thing they’d do is say, mockingly, “Oh, I bet your grandmother was Cherokee.” I remember actually thinking, “Please, please, I don’t want a Cherokee grandmother,” because I knew that if that was the case I’d be stuck either lying or being told I was lying. What I was finally told when I found my biological family was that my great-grandfather was an Indian. He was also a drunk, my great grandmother threw him out of the house and beyond that no one seems to know much beyond his being shot to death in 1953. And when someone sarcastically says, “Why does everyone have an Indian grandmother and no one has an Indian grandfather,” I think of some very nasty things to say, but I bite my tongue because the only people who’d feel hurt are probably exactly the people don’t deserve it.
Of course, this story really doesn’t satisfy anyone, including me. Sometimes, I read about those DNA tests and I think that I want to get one done. Then I feel like I’m coming back to that question of what is the truth. And what does it matter?
I’ve always wanted to talk to someone who was part Indian and could pass for being entirely white and grew up in a predominately white environment and see if they’ve had any of the same issues. I sure as hell didn’t ask for any of this shit. Sometimes, when people think I’m lying I don’t know if I should get mad that they’re accusing me of lying or that they think I’m so fucking unsophisticated that I never heard this before.
In any case, one can’t change the past. No matter what, I actually did grow up believing I was part Native American and I do think it had an effect on how I viewed the world. So, if Cody came to truly believe, who’s to really say. And I don’t mean to be totally relativistic about it, but I’m certainly not the person to get on my high horse and point out someone else’s identity issues. And I kind of wish I could apologize to one guy who tried to pick me up in a bar at the worst period of my identity issues and to whom I said some really nasty things.
Indian, Italian,whatever,he still made an excellent point, thanks, LMA
He definitely did.
hobo hippie said:
thanks for a terrific read -ana
hobo hippie said:
Reblogged this on BEATNIKHIWAY.
Laura Cole said:
What an interesting post, thanks for writing
I think I get your point. For a long time I’ve said that we are the stories that we tell ourselves. If you tell stories of heroes and people that try to do right, it gives people something to aim at. If you tell stories of dystopia, people will aim at that, too.
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