An anti-pollution advertisement became a staple of pop culture in 1971 through its image of a Native American man crying at the sight of smokestacks. Today, the company that originally commissioned the commercial let Indigenous activists make the decision to retire it.
Nonprofit environmental advocacy group Keep America Beautiful recently transferred ownership rights of the "Crying Indian" advertisement to the National Congress of American Indians, who announced last week that they will end the use of the commercial.
“NCAI is proud to assume the role of monitoring the use of this advertisement and ensure it is only used for historical context; this advertisement was inappropriate then and remains inappropriate today,” said NCAI Executive Director Larry Wright, Jr. “NCAI looks forward to putting this advertisement to bed for good.”
Noah Ullman, a spokesperson for Keep America Beautiful, told NBC that the nonprofit has long been searching for a way to respectfully remove the advertisement from circulation. Transferring rights to the NCAI left the decision in the hands of the people most impacted by the stereotypes put forth by the commercial.
“Keep America Beautiful wanted to be careful and deliberate about how we transitioned this iconic advertisement/public service announcement to appropriate owners," Ullman said. "We spoke to several Indigenous peoples’ organizations and were pleased to identify the National Congress of American Indians as a potential caretaker.”
The advertisement featured late actor Iron Eyes Cody, an Italian American who claimed to have Cherokee heritage through his father, dressed in buckskins and long braids. Upon seeing a landscape of smokestacks, he shed a single tear.
Cody went on to film several other public service announcements, and appeared in over 80 films, many in which he played roles simply referred to as "Indian" or "Indian Chief." He also served as a technical adviser for Native American culture on movie sets.
Robert “Tree” Cody, the adopted son of Iron Eyes Cody, said he believes the commercial had “good intent and good heart," but many Native American community members have expressed grievances with stereotypical portrayal of Indigenous people and their relationship to nature.
Dr. Jennifer J. Folsom, a journalism professor at Colorado State University and citizen of the Choctaw Nation in Oklahoma, said that decommissioning the advertisement will help "control the narrative" around Indigenous communities, adding that KAB's decision was “appropriate move.”
“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.”
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