People start pollution, people can stop it.
"It is my sincerest wish to reach the hearts of the people of the world by my Keep America Beautiful film of 'The Crying Indian' so they will be more aware of the dangers of pollution facing the world today. If I have done that, then I have done all I need to do!" Iron Eyes Cody.
This classic television commercial, from the “Keep America Beautiful” campaign of the early 1970s, debuted on the second Earth Day, in 1971, and was one of the most successful public service announcements ever produced, starring actor (actually, Italian-American actor) Iron Eyes Cody as the “crying Indian” with a voice-over by actor William Conrad.
- Sponsor: Keep America Beautiful
- Volunteer Agency: Marsteller, Inc.
- Date: 1961-1983
In 1961, Keep America Beautiful partnered with the Ad Council to create a campaign dramatizing how litter and other forms of pollution were hurting the environment, and that every individual has the responsibility to help protect it. The goal of the campaign was to help fight the negative attitudes and behaviors that lead to pollution.
The anti-litter campaign originally featured "Suzy Spotless" scolding her litterbug father and later featured pigs rummaging through trash left behind by humans. In 1970, the Keep America Beautiful toll-free hotline began offering a free brochure, and more than 100,000 copies were requested within the first four months. On top of that, the National Litter Index dropped for the second straight year. However, it wasn't until later that the Pollution Prevention campaign became embedded in American culture.
On Earth Day, 1971, a PSA featuring Native American actor Chief Iron Eyes Cody and the tagline line, "People Start Pollution. People can stop it." aired for the first time. In that enduring minute-long TV spot, viewers watched an Indian paddle his canoe up a polluted and flotsam-filled river, stream past belching smokestacks, come ashore at a litter-strewn river bank, and walk to the edge of a highway, where the occupant of a passing automobile thoughtlessly tossed a bag of trash out the car window to burst open at the astonished visitor's feet. When the camera moved upwards for a close-up, a single tear was seen rolling down the Indian's face as the narrator dramatically intoned: "People start pollution; people can stop it."
Iron Eyes Cody became synonymous with environmental concern and achieved lasting fame as, "The Crying Indian." The PSA won two Clio awards and the campaign was named one of the top 100 advertising campaigns of the 20th Century by Ad Age Magazine. In 1982, the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce honored Iron Eyes Cody, whose film repertoire included three Western films with President Ronald Reagan, with a star bearing his name on the Famous Walk of Fame on Hollywood Boulevard.
During the height of the campaign, Keep America Beautiful reported receiving more than 2,000 letters a month from people wanting to join their local team. By the end of the campaign, Keep America Beautiful local teams had helped to reduce litter by as much as 88% in 300 communities, 38 states, and several countries. The success of the Keep America Beautiful anti-litter campaign led to hundreds of other environmental messages through the years, from many different sources, including the Ad Council.
That "crying Indian," as he would later sometimes be referred to, was Iron Eyes Cody, an actor who throughout his life claimed to be of Cherokee/Cree extraction. Yet his asserted ancestry was just as artificial as the tear that rolled down his cheek in that television spot — the tear was glycerine, and the "Indian" a second-generation Italian-American.
Iron Eyes Cody was born Espera DeCorti on April 3, 1904, in the small town of Kaplan, Louisiana. He was the son of Francesca Salpietra and Antonio DeCorti, she an immigrant from Sicily who had arrived in the USA in 1902, and he, another immigrant who had arrived in America not long before her. Their's was an arranged marriage, and the couple had four children, with Espera (or Oscar, as he was called) their second eldest. In 1909, when Espera was five years old, Antonio DeCorti abandoned his wife and children and headed for Texas. Francesca married again, this time to a man named Alton Abshire, with whom she bore five more children.
As teenagers the three DeCorti boys joined their father in Texas. He had since altered his name from Antonio DeCorti to Tony Corti, and the boys apparently followed suit as far as their surname was concerned. In 1924, following their father's death, the boys moved to Hollywood, changed "Corti" to "Cody," and began working in the motion picture industry. It was about this time Iron Eyes began presenting himself to the world as an Indian. Iron Eyes' two brothers, Joseph William and Frank Henry, found work as extras but soon drifted into other lines of work. Iron Eyes went on to achieve a full career as an actor, appearing in well over a hundred movies and dozens of television shows across the span of several decades.
Although Iron Eyes was not born an Indian, he lived his adult years as one. He pledged his life to Native American causes, married an Indian woman (Bertha Parker), adopted two Indian boys (Robert and Arthur), and seldom left home without his beaded moccasins, buckskin jacket and braided wig. His was not a short-lived masquerade nor one that was donned and doffed whenever expedient — he maintained his fiction throughout his life and steadfastly denied rumors that he was not an Indian, even after his half-sister surfaced to tell the story in 1996 and to provide pointers to the whereabouts of his birth certificate and other family documents.
Cody died on January 5, 1999, at the age of 94.
Even if Iron Eyes was not a true-born Native American, he certainly did a lot of good on behalf of the Native American community, and they generally accepted him as one of them without caring about his true ancestry. In 1995, Hollywood's Native American community honored Iron Eyes for his longstanding contribution to Native American causes. Although he was no Indian, they pointed out, his charitable deeds were more important than his non-Indian heritage.
Author:Barbara "going native" Mikkelson