An excerpt from Seeing Green: The Use and Abuse of American Environmental Images
by Finis Dunaway
“The Crying Indian”
It may be the most famous tear in American history. Iron Eyes Cody, an actor in native garb, paddles a birch bark canoe on water that seems at first tranquil and pristine but becomes increasingly polluted along his journey. He pulls his boat from the water and walks toward a bustling freeway. As the lone Indian ponders the polluted landscape and stares at vehicles streaming by, a passenger hurls a paper bag out a car window. The bag bursts on the ground, scattering fast-food wrappers all over his beaded moccasins. In a stern voice, the narrator comments: “Some people have a deep abiding respect for the natural beauty that was once this country. And some people don’t.” The camera zooms in closely on Iron Eyes Cody’s face to reveal a single tear falling, ever so slowly, down his cheek (fig. 5.1).
This tear made its television debut in 1971 at the close of a public service advertisement for the antilitter organization Keep America Beautiful. Appearing in languid motion on television, the tear would also circulate in other visual forms, stilled on billboards and print media advertisements to become a frame stopped in time, forever fixing the image of Iron Eyes Cody as the Crying Indian. Garnering many advertising accolades, including two Clio Awards, and still ranked as one of the best commercials of all time, the Crying Indian spot enjoyed tremendous airtime during the 1970s, allowing it to gain, in advertising lingo, billions of “household impressions” and achieve one of the highest viewer recognition rates in television history. After being remade multiple times to support Keep America Beautiful, and after becoming indelibly etched into American public culture, the commercial has more recently been spoofed by various television shows, including The Simpsons (always a reliable index of popular culture resonance),King of the Hill, and Penn & Teller: Bullshit. These parodies—together with the widely publicized reports that Iron Eyes Cody was actually born Espera De Corti, an Italian-American who literally played Indian in both his life and onscreen—may make it difficult to view the commercial with the same degree of moral seriousness it sought to convey to spectators at the time. Yet to appreciate the commercial’s significance, to situate Cody’s tear within its historical moment, we need to consider why so many viewers believed that the spot represented an image of pure feeling captured by the camera. As the television scholar Robert Thompson explains: “The tear was such an iconic moment. . . . Once you saw it, it was unforgettable. It was like nothing else on television. As such, it stood out in all the clutter we saw in the early 70s.”
FIGURE 5.1. The Crying Indian. Advertising Council / Keep America Beautiful advertisement, 1971. Courtesy of Ad Council Archives, University of Illinois, record series 13/2/203.
As a moment of intense emotional expression, Iron Eyes Cody’s tear compressed and concatenated an array of historical myths, cultural narratives, and political debates about native peoples and progress, technology and modernity, the environment and the question of responsibility. It reached back into the past to critique the present; it celebrated the ecological virtue of the Indian and condemned visual signs of pollution, especially the heedless practices of the litterbug. It turned his crying into a moment of visual eloquence, one that drew upon countercultural currents but also deflected the radical ideas of environmental, indigenous, and other protest groups.
At one level, this visual eloquence came from the tear itself, which tapped into a legacy of romanticism rekindled by the counterculture. As the writer Tom Lutz explains in his history of crying, the Romantics enshrined the body as “the seal of truth,” the authentic bearer of sincere emotion. “To say that tears have a meaning greater than any words is to suggest that truth somehow resides in the body,” he argues. “For [Romantic authors], crying is superior to words as a form of communication because our bodies, uncorrupted by culture or society, are naturally truthful, and tears are the most essential form of speech for this idealized body.”
Rather than being an example of uncontrolled weeping, the single tear shed by Iron Eyes Cody also contributed to its visual power, a moment readily aestheticized and easily reproduced, a drop poised forever on his cheek, seemingly suspended in perpetuity. Cody himself grasped how emotions and aesthetics became intertwined in the commercial. “The final result was better than anybody expected,” he noted in his autobiography. “In fact, some people who had been working on the project were moved to tears just reviewing the edited version. It was apparent we had something of a 60-second work of art on our hands.” The aestheticizing of his tear yielded emotional eloquence; the tear seemed to express sincerity, an authentic record of feeling and experience. Art and reality merged to offer an emotional critique of the environmental crisis.
That the tear trickled down the leathered face of a Native American (or at least someone reputed to be indigenous) made its emotionality that much more poignant, its critique that much more palpable. By designing the commercial around the imagined experience of a native person, someone who appears to have journeyed out of the past to survey the current landscape, Keep America Beautiful (KAB) incorporated the counterculture’s embrace of Indianness as a marker of oppositional identity.
Yet KAB, composed of leading beverage and packaging corporations and staunchly opposed to many environmental initiatives, sought to interiorize the environmentalist critique of progress, to make individual viewers feel guilty and responsible for the degraded environment. Deflecting the question of responsibility away from corporations and placing it entirely in the realm of individual action, the commercial castigated spectators for their environmental sins but concealed the role of industry in polluting the landscape. A ghost from the past, someone who returns to haunt the contemporary American imagination, the Crying Indian evoked national guilt for the environmental crisis but also worked to erase the presence of actual Indians from the landscape. Even as Red Power became a potent organizing force, KAB conjured a spectral Indian to represent the native experience, a ghost whose melancholy presence mobilized guilt but masked ongoing colonialism, whose troubling visitation encouraged viewers to feel responsible but to forget history. Signifying resistance and secreting urgency, his single tear glossed over power to generate a false sense of personal blame. For all its implied sincerity, many environmentalists would come to see the tear as phony and politically problematic, the liquid conclusion to a sham campaign orchestrated by corporate America.
Before KAB appropriated Indianness by making Iron Eyes Cody into a popular environmental symbol, the group had promoted a similar message of individual responsibility through its previous antilitter campaigns. Founded in 1951 by the American Can Company and the Owens-Illinois Glass Company, a corporate roster that later included the likes of Coca-Cola and the Dixie Cup Company, KAB gained the support of the Advertising Council, the nation’s preeminent public service advertising organization. Best known for creating Smokey Bear and the slogan “Only You Can Prevent Forest Fires” for the US Forest Service, the Ad Council applied the same focus on individual responsibility to its KAB advertising.
The Ad Council’s campaigns for KAB framed litter as a visual crime against landscape beauty and an affront to citizenship values. David F. Beard, a KAB leader and the director of advertising for Reynolds Metals Company, described the litter problem in feverish tones and sought to infuse the issue with a sense of crisis. “During this summer and fall, all media will participate in an accelerated campaign to help to curb the massive defacement of the nation by thoughtless and careless people,” he wrote in 1961. “The bad habits of littering can be changed only by making all citizens aware of their responsibilities to keep our public places as clean as they do their own homes.” The KAB fact sheet distributed to media outlets heightened this rhetoric of urgency by describing litter as an infringement upon the rights of American citizens who “derive much pleasure and recreation from their beautiful outdoors. . . . Yet their enjoyment of the natural and man- made attractions of our grand landscape is everywhere marred by the litter which careless people leave in their wake.” “The mountain of refuse keeps growing,” draining public coffers for continual cleanup and even posing “a menace to life and health,” the Ad Council concluded.
And why had this litter crisis emerged? The Ad Council acknowledged that “more and more products” were now “wrapped and packaged in containers of paper, metal and other materials”—the very same disposable containers that were manufactured, marketed, and used by the very same companies that had founded and directed KAB. Yet rather than critique the proliferation of disposables, rather than question the corporate decisions that led to the widespread use of these materials, KAB and the Ad Council singled out “individual thoughtlessness” as “the outstanding factor in the litter nuisance.”
Each year Beard’s rhetoric became increasingly alarmist as he began to describe the antilitter effort as the moral equivalent of war. “THE LITTERBUGS ARE ON THE LOOSE,” he warned newspapers around the nation, “and we’re counting on you to take up arms against them. . . . Your newspaper is a big gun in the battle against thoughtless littering.” Each year the campaign adopted new visuals to illustrate the tag line: “Bit by bit . . . every litter bit hurts.” “This year we are taking a realistic approach to the litter problem, using before-and-after photographs to illustrate our campaign theme,” Beard reported in 1963. “We think you’ll agree that these ads pack a real wallop.” These images showed a white family or a group of white teenagers enjoying themselves in one photograph but leaving behind unsightly debris in the next. The pictures focused exclusively on places of leisure—beaches, parks, and lakes—to depict these recreational environments as spaces treasured by white middle-class Americans, the archetypal members of the national community. The fight against litter thus appeared as a patriotic effort to protect the beauty of public spaces and to reaffirm the rights and responsibilities of citizenship, especially among the social group considered to exemplify the American way of life.
In 1964, though, Beard announced a shift in strategy. Rather than appealing to citizenship values in general, KAB would target parents in particular by deploying images of children to appeal to their emotions. “This year we are . . . reminding the adult that whenever he strews litter he is remiss in setting a good example for the kids—an appeal which should hit . . . with more emotional force than appealing primarily to his citizenship,” he wrote. The campaign against litter thus packaged itself as a form of emotional citizenship. Situating private feelings within public spaces, KAB urged fathers and mothers to see littering as a sign of poor parenting: “The good citizenship habits you want your children to have go overboard when they see you toss litter away.”
These new advertisements featured Susan Spotless, a young white girl who always wore a white dress—completely spotless, of course— together with white shoes, white socks, and a white headband. In the ads, Susan pointed her accusatory finger at pieces of trash heedlessly dropped by her parents (fig. 5.2). The goal of this campaign, Beard explained, was “to dramatize the message that ‘Keeping America Beautiful’ is a family affair’”—a concept that would later be applied not just to litter, but to the entire environmental crisis. Susan Spotless introduced a moral gaze into the discourse on litter, a gaze that used the wagging finger of a child to condemn individual adults for being bad parents, irresponsible citizens, and unpatriotic Americans. She played the part of a child who not only had a vested interest in the future but also appealed to private feelings to instruct her parents how to be better citizens. Launched in 1964, the same year that the Lyndon Johnson campaign broadcast the “Daisy Girl” ad, the Susan Spotless campaign also represented a young white girl as an emblem of futurity to promote citizenship ideals.
Throughout the 1960s and beyond, the Ad Council and KAB continued to present children as emotional symbols of the antilitter agenda. An ad from the late 1960s depicted a chalkboard with children’s antilitter sentiments scrawled across it: “Litter is not pretty. Litter is not healthy. Litter is not clean. Litter is not American.” What all these campaigns assumed was a sense of shared American values and a faith that the United States was fundamentally a good society. The ads did not attempt to mobilize resistant images or question dominant narratives of nationalism. KAB did not in any way attempt to appeal to the social movements and gathering spirit of protest that marked the 1960s.
With this background history in mind, the Crying Indian campaign appears far stranger, a surprising turn for the antilitter movement. KAB suddenly moved from its rather bland admonishments about litter to encompass a broader view of pollution and the environmental crisis. Within a few years it had shifted from Susan Spotless to the Crying Indian. Rather than signaling its commitment to environmentalism, though, this new representational strategy indicated KAB’s fear of the environmental movement.
FIGURE 5.2. “Daddy, you forgot . . . every litter bit hurts!” Advertising Council / Keep America Beautiful advertisement, 1964. Courtesy of Ad Council Archives, University of Illinois, record series 13/2/207.
The soft drink and packaging industries—composed of the same companies that led KAB —viewed the rise of environmentalism with considerable trepidation. Three weeks before the first Earth Day, the National Soft Drink Association (NSDA) distributed a detailed memo to its members, warning that “any bottling company” could be targeted by demonstrators hoping to create an “attention-getting scene.” The memo explained that in March, as part of a “‘dress rehearsal’” for Earth Day, University of Michigan students had protested at a soft drink plant by dumping a huge pile of nonreturnable bottles and cans on company grounds. Similar stunts, the memo cautioned, might be replicated across the nation on Earth Day.
And, indeed, many environmental demonstrations staged during the week surrounding Earth Day focused on the issue of throwaway containers. All these protests held industry—not consumers—responsible for the proliferation of disposable items that wasted natural resources and created a solid waste crisis. In Atlanta, for example, the week culminated with an “Ecolog y Trek”—featuring a pickup truck full of bottles and cans—to the Coca-Cola company headquarters. FBI surveillance agents, posted at fifty locations around the United States to monitor the potential presence of radicals at Earth Day events, noted that in most cases the bottling plants were ready for the demonstrators. Indeed, the plant managers heeded the memo’s advice: they not only had speeches prepared and “trash receptacles set up” for the bottles and cans hauled by participants, but also offered free soft drinks to the demonstrators. At these protests, environmental activists raised serious questions about consumer culture and the ecological effects of disposable packaging. In response, industry leaders in Atlanta and elsewhere announced, in effect: “Let them drink Coke.”
The NSDA memo combined snideness with grudging respect to emphasize the significance of environmentalism and to warn about its potential impact on their industry: If legions of consumers imbibed the environmentalist message, would their sales and profi ts diminish? “Those who are protesting, although many may be only semi- informed, have a legitimate concern for the environment they will inherit,” the memo commented. “From a business point of view, the protestors . . . represent the growing numbers of today’s and tomorrow’s soft drink consumers. An industry whose product sales are based on enjoyment of life must be concerned about ecological problems.” Placed on the defensive by Earth Day, the industry recognized that it needed to formulate a more proactive public relations effort.
KAB and the Ad Council would devise the symbolic solution that soft drink and packaging industries craved: the image of the Crying Indian. The conceptual brilliance of the ad stemmed from its ability to incorporate elements of the countercultural and environmentalist critique of progress into its overall vision in order to offer the public a resistant narrative that simultaneously deflected attention from industry practices. When Iron Eyes Cody paddled his birch bark canoe out of the recesses of the imagined past, when his tear registered shock at the polluted present, he tapped into a broader current of protest and, as the ad’s designers knew quite well, entered a cultural milieu already populated by other Ecological Indians.
In 1967 Life magazine ran a cover story titled “Rediscovery of the Red-man,” which emphasized how certain notions of Indianness were becoming central to countercultural identity. Native Americans, the article claimed, were currently “being discovered again—by the hippies. . . . Viewing the dispossessed Indian as America’s original dropout, and convinced that he has deeper spiritual values than the rest of society, hippies have taken to wearing his costume and horning in on his customs.” Even as the article revealed how the counterculture trivialized native culture by extracting symbols of imagined Indianness, it also indicated how the image of the Indian could be deployed as part of an oppositional identity to question dominant values.
While Life stressed the material and pharmaceutical accoutrements the counterculture ascribed to Indianness— from beads and headbands to marijuana and LSD—other media sources noted how many counter-cultural rebels found ecological meaning in native practices. In 1969, as part of a special issue devoted to the environmental crisis,Look magazine profiled the poet Gary Snyder, whose work enjoyed a large following among the counterculture. Photographed in the nude as he held his smiling young child above his head and sat along a riverbank, Snyder looked like the archetypal natural man, someone who had found freedom in nature, far away from the constraints and corruptions of modern culture. In a brief statement to the magazine he evoked frontier mythology to contrast the failures of the cowboy with the virtues of the Indian. “We’ve got to leave the cowboys behind,” Snyder said. “We’ve got to become natives of this land, join the Indians and recapture America.”
Although the image of the Ecological Indian grew out of longstanding traditions in American culture, it circulated with particular intensity during the late 1960s and early 1970s. A 1969 poster distributed by activists in Berkeley, California, who wanted to protect “People’s Park” as a communal garden, features a picture of Geronimo, the legendary Apache resistance fighter, armed with a rifle. The accompanying text contrasts the Indians’ reverence for the land with the greed of white men who turned the space into a parking lot. Likewise, a few weeks before Earth Day, the New York Times Magazine reported on Ecology Action, a Berkeley-based group. The author was particularly struck by one image that appeared in the group’s office. “After getting past the sign at the door, the visitor is confronted with a large poster of a noble, if somewhat apprehensive, Indian. The first Americans have become the culture heroes of the ecology movement.” Native Americans had become symbolically important to the movement, because, one of Ecology Action’s leaders explained, “‘the Indians lived in harmony with this country and they had a reverence for the things they depended on.’”
Hollywood soon followed suit. The 1970 revisionist Western Little Big Man, one of the most popular films of the era, portrayed Great Plains Indians living in harmony with their environment, respecting the majestic herds of bison that filled the landscape. While Indians killed the animals only for subsistence, whites indiscriminately slaughtered the creatures for profit, leaving their carcasses behind to amass, in one memorable scene, enormous columns of skins for the market. One film critic noted that “the ominous theme is the invincible brutality of the white man, the end of ‘natural’ life in America.”18
In creating the image of the Crying Indian, KAB practiced a sly form of propaganda. Since the corporations behind the campaign never publicized their involvement, audiences assumed that KAB was a disinterested party. KAB documents, though, reveal the level of duplicity in the campaign. Disingenuous in joining the ecology bandwagon, KAB excelled in the art of deception. It promoted an ideology without seeming ideological; it sought to counter the claims of a political movement without itself seeming political. The Crying Indian, with its creative appropriation of countercultural resistance, provided the guilt-inducing tear KAB needed to propagandize without seeming propagandistic.
Soon after the first Earth Day, Marsteller agreed to serve as the volunteer ad agency for a campaign whose explicit purpose was to broaden the KAB message beyond litter to encompass pollution and the environmental crisis. Acutely aware of the stakes of the ideological struggle, Marsteller’s vice president explained to the Ad Council how he hoped the campaign would battle the ideas of environmentalists—ideas, he feared, that were becoming too widely accepted by the American public. “The problem . . . was the attitude and the thinking of individual Americans,” he claimed. “They considered everyone else but themselves as polluters. Also, they never correlated pollution with litter. . . . The ‘mind-set’ of the public had to be overcome. The objective of the advertising, therefore, would be to show that polluters are people—no matter where they are, in industry or on a picnic.” While this comment may have exaggerated the extent to which the American public held industry and industry alone responsible for environmental problems (witness the popularity of the Pogo quotation), it revealed the anxiety felt by corporate leaders who saw the environmentalist insurgency as a possible threat to their control over the means of production.19
As outlined by the Marsteller vice president, the new KAB advertising campaign would seek to accomplish the following ideological objectives: It would conflate litter with pollution, making the problems seem indistinguishable from one another; it would interiorize the sense of blame and responsibility, making viewers feel guilty for their own individual actions; it would generalize and universalize with abandon, making all people appear equally complicit in causing pollution and the environmental crisis. While the campaign would still sometimes rely on images of young white children, images that conveyed futurity to condemn the current crisis, the Crying Indian offered instead an image of the past returning to the haunt the present.
Before becoming the Crying Indian, Iron Eyes Cody had performed in numerous Hollywood films, all in roles that embodied the stereotypical, albeit contradictory, characteristics attributed to cinematic Indians. Depending on the part, he could be solemn and stoic or crazed and bloodthirsty; most of all, though, in all these films he appeared locked in the past, a visual relic of the time before Indians, according to frontier myth, had vanished from the continent.
The Crying Indian ad took the dominant mythology as prologue; it assumed that audiences would know the plotlines of progress and disappearance and would imagine its prehistoric protagonist suddenly entering the contemporary moment of 1971. In the spot, the time- traveling Indian paddles his canoe out of the pristine past. His long black braids and feather, his buckskin jacket and beaded moccasins— all signal his pastness, his inability to engage with modernity. He is an anachronism who does not belong in the picture.
The spectral Indian becomes an emblem of protest, a phantomlike figure whose untainted ways allow him to embody native ecological wisdom and to critique the destructive forces of progress. He confronts viewers with his mournful stare, challenging them to atone for their environmental sins. Although he has glimpsed various signs of pollution, it is the final careless act—the one passenger who flings trash at his feet—that leads him to cry. At the moment the tear appears, the narrator, in a baritone voice, intones: “People start pollution. People can stop it.” The Crying Indian does not speak. The voice-over sternly confi rms his tearful judgment and articulates what the silent Indian cannot say: Industry and public policy are not to blame, because individual people cause pollution. The resistant narrative becomes incorporated into KAB’s propaganda effort. His tear tries to alter the public’s “mind-set,” to deflect attention away from KAB’s corporate sponsors by making individual Americans feel culpable for the environmental crisis.
Iron Eyes Cody became a spectral Indian at the same moment that actual Indians occupied Alcatraz Island—located, ironically enough, in San Francisco Bay, the same body of water in which the Crying Indian was paddling his canoe. As the ad was being filmed, native activists on nearby Alcatraz were presenting themselves not as past-tense Indians but as coeval citizens laying claim to the abandoned island. For almost two years—from late 1969 through mid-1971, a period that overlapped with both the filming and release of the Crying Indian commercial— they demanded that the US government cede control of the island. The Alcatraz activists, composed mostly of urban Indian college students, called themselves the “Indians of All Tribes” to express a vision of pan- Indian unity—an idea also expressed by the American Indian Movement (AIM) and the struggle for Red Power. On Alcatraz they hoped to create several centers, including an ecological center that would promote “an Indian view of nature—that man should live with the land and not simply on it.”
While the Crying Indian was a ghost in the media machine, the Alcatraz activists sought to challenge the legacies of colonialism and contest contemporary injustices—to address, in other words, the realities of native lives erased by the anachronistic Indians who typically populated Hollywood film. “The Alcatraz news stories are somewhat shocking to non-Indians,” the Indian author and activist Vine Deloria Jr. explained a few months after the occupation began. “It is difficult for most Americans to comprehend that there still exists a living community of nearly one million Indians in this country. For many people, Indians have become a species of movie actor periodically dispatched to the Happy Hunting Grounds by John Wayne on the ‘Late, Late Show.’” The Indians on Alcatraz, Deloria believed, could advance native issues and also potentially teach the United States how to establish a more sustainable relationship with the land. “Non-Indian society has created a monstrosity of a culture where . . . the sun can never break through the smog,” he wrote. “It just seems to a lot of Indians that this continent was a lot better off when we were running it.” While the Crying Indian and Deloria both upheld the notion of native ecological wisdom, they did so in diametrically opposed ways. Iron Eyes Cody’s tear, ineffectual and irrelevant to contemporary Indian lives, evoked only the idea of Indianness, a static symbol for polluting moderns to emulate. In contrast, the burgeoning Red Power movement demonstrated that native peoples would not be consigned to the past, and would not act merely as screens on which whites could project their guilt and desire.
A few weeks after the Crying Indian debuted on TV, the Indians of All Tribes were removed from Alcatraz. Iron Eyes Cody, meanwhile, repeatedly staked out a political position quite different from that of AIM, whose activists protested and picketed one of his films for its stereotypical and demeaning depictions of native characters. Still playing Indian in real life, Cody chastised the group for its radicalism. “The American Indian Movement (AIM) has some good people in it, and I know them,” he later wrote in his autobiography. “But, while the disruptions it has instigated helped put the Indians on the world map, its values and direction must change. AIM must work at encouraging Indians to work within the system if we’ve to really improve our lives. If that sounds ‘Uncle Tom,’ so be it. I’m a realist, damn it! The buffalo are never coming back.” Iron Eyes Cody, the prehistoric ghost, the past-tense ecological Indian, disingenuously condemned AIM for failing to engage with modernity and longing for a pristine past when buffalo roamed the continent.
Even as AIM sought to organize and empower Indian peoples to improve present conditions, the Crying Indian appears completely powerless, unable to challenge white domination. In the commercial, all he can do is lament the land his people lost.
To read more about Seeing Green, click here.