Since its debut in 1971, an anti-pollution ad in which a man in Native American clothing sheds a single tear at the sight of smokestacks and litter ravaging a once pristine landscape has become an indelible piece of TV pop culture.
It has been referenced in shows like “The Simpsons” and “South Park” as well as internet memes over the past few decades. But now a Native American advocacy group that was awarded the rights to the long-parodied public announcement is retracting it, saying it has always been inappropriate.
The “Crying Indian” with his buckskins and long braids made the late actor Iron Eyes Cody a recognizable face in rural households. But for many Native Americans, the public service announcement has been a painful reminder of the enduring stereotypes they face.
The nonprofit organization that originally commissioned the TV ad, Keep America Beautiful, had long considered shutting down the ad and this week announced it would do so by transferring ownership of the rights to the National Congress. or American Indians.
“Keep America Beautiful wanted to be careful and considerate about how we handed over this iconic ad/public service announcement to the right owners,” Noah Ullman, a spokesperson for the nonprofit, said via email. “We spoke with several Indigenous peoples organizations and were pleased to identify the National Congress of American Indians as a potential caretaker.”
NCAI intends to discontinue use of the ad and monitor for unauthorized use.
“NCAI is proud to take on the role of monitoring the use of this ad and ensuring it is used for historical context only; this ad was inappropriate then and still is inappropriate,” said NCAI Executive Director Larry Wright Jr. “NCAI looks forward to putting this ad to bed for good.”
When it premiered in the 1970s, the ad was a sensation. It led to Iron Eyes Cody filming three follow-up PSAs. He spent more than 25 years making public appearances and visiting schools on behalf of the anti-litter campaign.
From there, Cody, who was Italian-American but said to have Cherokee ancestry through his father, was typecast as a standard Native American character, appearing in over 80 films. Usually his character was just “Indian,” “Indian Chief,” or “Indian Joe.”
Jennifer J. Folsom, a professor of journalism and media communications at Colorado State University and a citizen of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma, recalls watching the public service announcement as a child.
“At the time, every person who showed up with braids and buckskin, on TV or anywhere in the movie, glitched at that because it was so rare to see,” said Folsom, whose fields of study include Native American and pop culture. “I’ve seen people littering, and I’ve seen the creeks and rivers become polluted.”
But as she grew up, Folsom found that the media paid little attention to Native American environmentalists.
“There’s no desk for that sad so-called Indian man crying in a canoe,” Folsom said. “I think it’s damaged public perception and support for real Indigenous people doing things to protect the land and protect the environment.”
She hailed Keep America Beautiful’s decision as an “appropriate move.” It means a trusted group can help control the narrative that the ad has been promoting for more than 50 years, she said.
The power of the ad has arguably already faded as Native and Indigenous youth mature with a greater awareness of stereotypes and cultural appropriation. TikTok has plenty of examples of Indigenous people parodying or removing 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 core.
“It was one of the top 100 commercials,” said Cody, an enrolled 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 in New Mexico’s Santa Ana Pueblo.
“I remember a lot, even when he went to a movie 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 feel a little sad that an ad that means so much to their family will be shelved. But she accepts the decision.
“You know, times change too. You keep going no matter how much it changes,” she said. “Disappointment. … It will pass.