Since its debut in 1971, an anti-pollution ad featuring a man in Native American costume shedding a single tear at the sight of stacks of smoke and trash taking over a now-defunct landscape has become an indelible piece of television pop culture.
It has been referenced for years on shows such as “The Simpsons” and “South Park” and in internet memes. But now a Native American advocacy group that was given the rights to the far-reaching public service announcement is pulling out, saying it was always inappropriate.
The so-called “Crying Indian” with his buckskins and long braids made the late actor Iron Eyes Cody a recognizable face in households across the country. But for many Native Americans, the public service announcement was a painful reminder of the lingering stereotypes they face.
The nonprofit that originally commissioned the ad, Keep America Beautiful, has long pondered how to retire the ad and announced this week that it is doing so by transferring ownership of the rights to the National Congress of American Indians .
“Keep America Beautiful wanted to be careful and intentional about how we transitioned this iconic announcement/public service announcement to its proper owners,” Noah Ullman, a spokesman for the nonprofit, said via email. “We talked to a number of Native organizations and were pleased to identify the National Congress of American Indians as a potential custodian.”
The NCAI intends to stop the use of the advertisement and watch for any unauthorized use.
“NCAI is proud of its role in monitoring the use of this notice and ensuring that it is used only for historical context; this ad was inappropriate at the time and remains inappropriate today,” said NCAI Executive Director Larry Wright, Jr. “The NCAI looks forward to this announcement to reassure them.”
When it first aired in the 1970s, the ad was sensational. It led to the filming of Iron Eyes Cody through follow-up PSAs. He spent more than 25 years making public appearances and visiting schools for the anti-litter campaign, according to an Associated Press commentary.
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 over 80 films. Most of the time, his character was simply “Indian,” “Indian Chief” or “Indian Joe.”
His film credits from the 1950s-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 was also a technical consultant on Native American issues on film sets.
Dr. Jennifer J. Folsom, 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, everybody who showed braids and buckskins, on TV or anywhere in the movies, I was raving about that because it was such a rare thing to see,” said Folsom, whose fields studies include Native American. pop culture. “I saw how people littered, and I saw how the ponds and rivers were polluted.”
But growing up, Folsom noticed that the media gave little coverage to Native American environmental activists.
“There is no agency for that so-called sad Indian man, sitting in a canoe, crying,” Folsom said. “I think it has damaged public perception and support for indigenous people who are doing things to protect the land and protect the environment.”
She praised Keep America Beautiful’s decision as an “appropriate move.” It will mean a trusted group can help control the narrative that advertising has promoted for more than 50 years, she said.
It could be argued that the power of the ad has already faded as Indigenous and Indigenous youth come of age with a greater understanding of stereotypes and cultural appropriation. TikTok has many examples of Native people parodying or taking down the ad, Folsom said.
Robert “Tree” Cody, Iron Eyes Cody’s adopted son, said the ad had “good intentions and a good heart” at its heart.
“It was one of the top 100 ads,” said Robert Cody, a registered member of the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community in Arizona.
And, it reminded him of the time he spent with his father, said Cody, who lives at Santa Ana Pueblo in New Mexico.
“I remember a lot, even when he went on a movie set to finish his movies and stuff,” Cody said. “I remember going out to Universal (Studios), Disney, places like that.”
His wife, Rachel Kee-Cody, can’t help but feel a little sad that an ad that means so much to her family will be shelved. But she has resigned from the decision.
“You know, times are changing too. You keep going no matter how much it changes,” she said. “Disappointment. … It will pass.”
Tang is a member of The Associated Press’ Race and Ethnicity staff. Follow her on Twitter at @ttangAP.