Rights to ‘Crying Indian’ Go to Native American Group

05 March 2023

In 1971, an anti-pollution public service announcement showing a man crying a single tear at the sight of polluted land got a lot of attention in America.

A public service announcement supports a cause that is in the public interest. They are normally broadcast without cost.

Since that "Crying Indian" message was released, it has become an important part of American popular culture.

Iron Eyes Cody, the ''Crying Indian'' whose tearful face in 1970s TV commercials became a powerful symbol of the anti-littering campaign, is pictured in this 1986 photo. (AP Photo/File)
Iron Eyes Cody, the ''Crying Indian'' whose tearful face in 1970s TV commercials became a powerful symbol of the anti-littering campaign, is pictured in this 1986 photo. (AP Photo/File)

It has been talked about and parodied over the years on TV shows like The Simpsons and South Park and on social media. But recently, a Native American advocacy group was given the rights to use the message. The group is retiring the ad, saying it has always been inappropriate. That is because the man in the ad is wearing Native American clothes.

The "Crying Indian" ad made actor Iron Eyes Cody a recognizable face in households nationwide. But to many Native Americans, the public service announcement, or PSA, has been a reminder of the stereotypes they face and caused pain.

Keep America Beautiful is the nonprofit group that paid for the PSA to be produced. The group had been considering how to retire the ad. It announced this week it is doing so by transferring ownership of the rights to use the PSA to the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI).

Noah Ullman is a spokesperson for Keep America Beautiful. He said in a statement that the nonprofit group wanted to be careful about giving ownership to the right owners.

"We spoke to several Indigenous peoples' organizations and were pleased to identify the National Congress of American Indians as a potential caretaker," he said.

NCAI plans to end the use of the ad and watch for future use that is not permitted by law.

"NCAI looks forward to putting this advertisement to bed for good," said the group's executive director Larry Wright, Jr.

When it was released in the 1970s, the ad got a lot of attention. It led to Iron Eyes Cody filming three additional PSAs. He spent more than 25 years making public appearances and visiting schools as part of the anti-pollution campaign.

Cody was an Italian American but claimed to have native ancestry through his father. He played the part of a Native American in many movies, appearing in over 80 films.

Jennifer J. Folsom is a journalism and media communications professor at Colorado State University. She is also a citizen of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma. She remembers watching the public service announcement as a child.

But as she grew up, Folsom noticed how media gave little attention to Native American environmental activists.

"There's no agency for that sad so-called Indian guy sitting in a canoe, crying," Folsom said. "I think it has done damage to public perception and support for actual Native people doing things to protect the land and protect the environment."

She said Keep America Beautiful's decision was an "appropriate move."

The ad's power has already largely disappeared. The social media service TikTok has many examples of Native people parodying or strongly criticizing the advertisement, Folsom said.

Robert "Tree" Cody, is the adopted son of Iron Eyes Cody. He said the advertisement had "good intent and good heart."

"It was one of the top 100 commercials," said Robert Cody. He is a member of the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community in Arizona.

His wife, Rachel Kee-Cody, is sad that an ad that means so much to their family will be retired. But she has accepted the decision.

"You know, times are changing as well. You keep going no matter how much it changes," she said.

I'm Dan Novak.

Dan Novak adapted this story for VOA Learning English based on reporting by The Associated Press.


Words in This Story

parody — n. an artistic creation that copies another one in a way that is funny or humorous

advocacy — n. the act or process of supporting a cause using many methods

inappropriate — adj. not right for the situation

stereotype — adj. a representation of certain qualities of a group of people which members of that group, or even people who are not members of the group, object to and dislike

indigenous — n. existing naturally in a certain place, area or environment

perception — v. the way a person thinks about or understands something

intent –n. the aim or purpose behind an action; what someone meant to do