The 'Crying Indian' ad, which first aired on Earth Day in 1971, has been a staple of the American public consciousness for decades.
For decades, the “Crying Indian” ad has been a staple in the American public consciousness, renowned for its lasting impact on individuals and the environment. The commercial first aired on television on Earth Day in 1971 and featured a Native American man in buckskin and braids canoeing through a polluted river, past smoke-emitting factories, onto a littered shore. His sorrowful countenance and the single tear rolling down his cheek were in stark contrast to the careless disregard for the environment displayed by the passersby. “Some people have a deep abiding respect for the natural beauty that was once this country,” a voiceover states in the video. “And some people don’t.”
Last week, in light of its fraught history, Keep America Beautiful, the organization behind the ad, announced that it would be retiring the “Crying Indian” ad and transferring the rights to the National Congress of American Indians Fund, according to LA Times. The iconic commercial had become synonymous with furthering environmental protection and awareness but was also known for featuring imagery that stereotyped American Indian and Alaska Native people and misappropriated Native culture.
At the forefront of the ad was an Italian American who went by the name of Iron Eyes Cody and built a career of portraying Native characters in Hollywood Westerns as well as presenting himself as Native in his real life. While the commercial drew attention to the issue of pollution, it simultaneously exploited American guilt over the historical treatment of Indigenous people in order to spur individuals into action.
The ad also deflected responsibility for pollution from corporations onto individuals. Keep America Beautiful was comprised of corporate and civic leaders from packaging and beverage companies, such as the American Can Company, the Owens-Illinois Glass Company and later Coca-Cola and the Dixie Cup Company, who sought to promote a national cleanliness ethic. Through their numerous campaigns in the late ’50s and ‘60s, the organization shifted the public conversation away from the actual sources of litter—the growing numbers of disposable containers produced by beverage companies.
NCAI Acquires Rights, Retires “Crying Indian” - read the full release: https://t.co/eyMgxWM0B3 pic.twitter.com/J32hQ92jc6— National Congress of American Indians (@NCAI1944) February 23, 2023
Environmental activists of the time were drawing attention to the container industry’s role in pollution and it was in that context that the “Crying Indian” ad debuted in 1971. Critics have since accused Keep America Beautiful of greenwashing by promoting an ideology without seeming ideological and seeking to counter the claims of a political movement without itself seeming political. As Keep America Beautiful passes the torch to the National Congress of American Indians Fund, now the commercial will be used only for educational purposes. While its legacy is complicated, the ad stands as a reminder of the power of individuals to effect change and the importance of holding corporations accountable for their role in pollution.