In a move that could have significant implications for the way Native American culture is represented in popular culture, the National Congress of American Indians has been given ownership of the 1970s “Crying Indian” public service announcement (PSA).
The ad, which has been criticized for perpetuating stereotypes of Native Americans, was originally commissioned by Keep America Beautiful to warn against pollution.
The National Congress of American Indians, a Native American advocacy organization, will now be responsible for monitoring the use of the PSA and ensuring it is only used for historical context.
The ad, which was originally a hit, showed a man in Native American attire grimly looking at litter and pollution. The actor, Iron Eyes Cody, shed a single tear as the camera zoomed in on his face – a pop culture moment that has been parodied in “South Park” and “The Simpsons”.
But the ad has been considered controversial over the years, with Native American activists arguing that it promotes the “noble savage” archetype.
“There’s no agency for that sad so-called Indian guy sitting in a canoe, crying,” said professor Jennifer J. Folsom, adding, “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.”
Iron Eyes Cody, who played the Native American in the ad, claimed to have Cherokee heritage through his father. However, it was later revealed after his death that he was primarily Italian-American.
Cody was typecast to play Native Americans in over 80 films and spent over 25 years promoting the anti-litter campaign.
Keep America Beautiful said they wanted to be careful and deliberate about how they transitioned the ownership of the iconic advertisement to appropriate owners.
“We spoke to several Indigenous peoples’ organizations and were pleased to identify the National Congress of American Indians as a potential caretaker,” said spokesperson Noah Ullman.
The National Congress of American Indians said they look forward to “putting this advertisement to bed,” describing it as “inappropriate.”
“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.”
The transfer of ownership of the “Crying Indian” PSA to the National Congress of American Indians has been hailed as a significant step towards greater representation and respect for Native American culture in popular media.
It remains to be seen how the ad will be used in the future and whether its controversial legacy will continue to influence public perceptions of Native Americans.