“Green man speak with forked tongue.”
The original Earth Day was held on April 22, 1970. What an event it was! It heralded a new era of ecological concern. Its promoters’ goal was to mobilize Americans behind a new political cause: the greening of America. This would require the cleaning up of polluted America.
More than one person claims responsibility for having originated Earth Day. The most prominent is former United States Senator Gaylord Nelson. He tells his version of the story. He makes it clear that his goals were political.
Actually, the idea for Earth Day evolved over a period of seven years starting in 1962. For several years, it had been troubling me that the state of our environment was simply a non-issue in the politics of the country. . . .
I continued to speak on environmental issues to a variety of audiences in some twenty-five states. All across the country, evidence of environmental degradation was appearing everywhere, and everyone noticed except the political establishment. The environmental issue simply was not to be found on the nation’s political agenda. The people were concerned, but the politicians were not. . . .
At a conference in Seattle in September 1969, I announced that in the spring of 1970 there would be a nationwide grassroots demonstration on behalf of the environment and invited everyone to participate. The wire services carried the story from coast to coast. The response was electric. It took off like gangbusters. Telegrams, letters, and telephone inquiries poured in from all across the country. The American people finally had a forum to express its concern about what was happening to the land, rivers, lakes, and air — and they did so with spectacular exuberance. For the next four months, two members of my Senate staff, Linda Billings and John Heritage, managed Earth Day affairs out of my Senate office.
Keep America Beautiful
To capitalize on Earth Day, the infant green movement launched one of the most effective public relations campaigns in the history of advertising. One organization hit the jackpot: Keep America Beautiful. Its advertising agency hired America’s most famous Indian (sorry; Native American) to serve as their poster boy (sorry; poster man). His name was Iron Eyes Cody. For at least four decades by 1971, he had been Hollywood’s most recognizable red man, from comedies like “My Little Chickadee” to John Ford westerns. At the time of his death in 1999, his list of credits exceeded a hundred films.
Keep America Beautiful led off with a public service announcement, or PSA, beginning on Earth Day. A PSA is a tribute payment that the Federal Communications Commission imposes on licensed holders of FCC-granted “free” radio and television spectrum. A PSA is supposed to educate the public, i.e., change minds or reinforce opinions. Needless to say, you will not see PSA’s that are devoted to politically incorrect ideas.
The 60-second spot — long by PSA standards — showed Cody paddling a canoe through the unspoiled wilderness. Then the front of the canoe starts passing through floating garbage. Then we see factories belching smoke. (Factories never emit smoke; they always belch it.) He parks his canoe. There is litter on the ground. The narrator informs the viewers that “There are some people who have a deep, abiding respect for the land that America used to be. Other people don’t.” Someone tosses trash out of a car window. It lands at Cody’s feet. The camera zooms in on Cody’s face. We see a tear. End of clip. This promo is still on Keep America Beautiful’s Web site. It is a masterpiece of a uniquely American art form.
This PSA became the most widely seen PSA in the history of television. It has been estimated that the air time for this PSA, if paid for, would have cost well over half a billion dollars. Nothing featuring Smokey the Bear (sorry; Smokey Bear) has ever come close. Besides, Smokey is only a cartoon character. He is not real.
The PSA was followed by the campaign’s magazine ads featuring the crying Indian. It became a permanent feature of American commercial publishing. Year after year, Cody’s tear-streaked face has shaped the American public’s consciousness as no other ecological symbol ever has. Even outside America, it is well known. Emperor Hirohito, on meeting Cody, said, “You Cry-Man.” Man, did he cry — decade after decade!
In 1982, the U.S. Postal Service issued an Iron Eyes Cody stamp.
In a 1999 article in a Los Angeles publication, New Times, Ron Russell reported on the effect of this ad campaign on Cody’s life.
Along with instant recognition came a world tour, invitations to the White House, even an audience with the pope. Cody had become the national Indian and clearly relished the role. There he was at the LBJ Ranch, being feted by Lady Bird Johnson, or on a golf course, hobnobbing with Gerald Ford. Twice he was ushered into the Oval Office, first at the invitation of Jimmy Carter and later by Ronald Reagan. In fact, it had been Carter who introduced Cody to John Paul II in 1980, following a beatification ceremony for the only female American Indian ever to be nominated for sainthood.
The image’s implied message was clear: America brutalized the red man, whose heritage the land truly is, and now American capitalism is brutalizing the land itself. Native Americans are in touch with the land. Un-native Americans aren’t.
But there was a fly — one of nature’s creatures — in the ideological ointment. It turns out that Iron Eyes Cody was to Native Americans what Smokey Bear is to a grizzly: made in Hollywood.
Even the tear was fake. It was glycerine.
Heap Big Performance
Iron Eyes Cody came to Hollywood, he said, in 1919. There is no record of this. His father was a Cherokee Indian, he said. There is no record of this, either.
In the early 1990’s, Angela Aleiss, a postdoctoral scholar at UCLA, began to research Cody’s background. She had read his ghost-written autobiography, and there were too many facts that did not fit what she knew about the history of Hollywood. She began snooping.
She learned that there had long been a rumor in Hollywood that Cody was not an Indian. He claimed to be a Cherokee from Oklahoma, but in early autobiographical material, he had listed his place of birth as Texas. Cody had a younger brother, Frank. She was able to trace Frank’s background. His widow had also listed Texas as his birthplace, but on his original Social Security application, he had listed Gueydan, Louisiana. Aleiss contacted the librarian in Gueydan. Without prompting, the librarian added that Frank had been Iron Eyes Cody’s brother.
An employee at the Gueydan Journal told Aleiss that people in the town had known for decades that Cody had been born there. His name was not Iron Eyes Cody. It was Espera deCorti. He was the son of an Italian immigrant family. He and his brothers had later moved to Texas.
Aleiss contacted Cody’s surviving half-sister, who was living in a retirement home. She assured Aleiss that Cody was her half-brother. Aleiss wrote the story for the New Orleans’ Times-Picayune (May 26, 1996). She reported:
Iron Eyes — or ‘Oscar’ as he was called — was born on April 3, 1904, in the small town of Kaplan. Baptismal records at Holy Rosary Catholic Church show that his sponsors christened him “Espera.” Iron Eyes was the second of four children, with Joseph William the eldest (born in about 1902), and sister Victoria Delores (about 1907) and brother Frank Henry (about 1909) the younger siblings.
She ended it with this observation:
Last year, Hollywood’s Native American community honored Iron Eyes for his longstanding contribution. Although he was no Indian, they pointed out, his charitable deeds were more important than this non-Indian heritage.
No wire service picked up her article. The story remained unknown to the general public. Cody told reporters that the story was not true, but he refused to provide any documentation about his origins over the next three years. Aleiss repeatedly asked him to send her something that proved his origins. He never did.
After her article appeared, Aleiss contacted an old friend of Cody’s, Charles Alley, the father-in-law of film director Ron Howard. He had known Cody since 1938. He assured Aleiss that her version was true. This additional information comes from Ron Russell’s story.
Cody’s long-estranged surviving son posted a letter on June 27, 2000 in which he attacked the divisive effects that he thinks the story has had on the Indian community, but he did not come out and said that the story is false.
The Internet Movie Data Base on Cody’s films identifies him as Espera DeCorti.
If I were going to write a biography of Cody, I would title it, Rustled Feathers.
My Personal Recollections
Unlike most readers of this article, I was influenced by Cody in my youth. This was through his presence on a weekly show on Los Angeles television station KTLA in 1950, hosted by the B-western cowboy actor, Tim McCoy. McCoy would regale us kids with a half hour of Western history and Indian lore, and then show one of his movies from the 1930’s and early 1940’s. At age 9, I liked his stories far more than his movies (except for “The Rough Riders” series, co-starring the aging Buck Jones and the aged Raymond Hatton). This was my first introduction to serious history, and I have never lost my taste for it.
McCoy was the real thing. During World War I, he was the U.S. Army’s chief interpreter of the Plains Indians’ sign language, a common language that allowed the tribes to communicate with each other. He rose to the rank of lieutenant colonel. He served first in the cavalry, then in the artillery, but stateside.
He had Cody on his show to give it a true Old West flavor. He was always respectful of Indian traditions. He was the first adult I ever heard who regarded George Custer as an egomaniac who got his men killed needlessly.
I remember that McCoy and Cody would sometimes exchange a few words in sign language. Years later, Cody wrote a book on sign language. How could he have fooled McCoy? Or did McCoy just go along with the deception? If so, why? I think McCoy was fooled. By 1950, Cody was deeply into Indian life and lore. He may have picked up sign language from other Plains Indians, or even from McCoy. He travelled in Indian circles constantly.
I also vividly recall two appearances on the show by one of Cody’s two (adopted) sons, who at age 3 did a hoop dance. I have never since seen anything to match the dexterity of such a young boy — spinning that hoop, jumping through it as he whirled it like a jump rope around him, and generally showing complete mastery. If Cody was an Italian, who taught that little boy how to do this?
One answer is that he had been taught by his mother, Bertha Parker Cody. Russell reports that Mrs. Cody
. . . was the well-educated daughter of a distinguished Seneca family from upstate New York. One of her great uncles, Ely S. Parker, had been General Ulysses S. Grant’s adjutant during the Civil War. When Grant became President of the United States, he appointed Parker as the country’s first American-Indian commissioner of the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Her father, Arthur Parker, was New York’s state archaeologist in the first two decades of the century. He went on to become internationally recognized within museum circles as the chief curator and person most responsible for establishing the reputation of the Rochester Museum, home to a renowned Iroquois collection.
One man was not fooled: Jay Silverheels, who remains most famous as the actor who portrayed Tonto in the televised Lone Ranger series. Russell writes:
A Mohawk who had grown up on a reservation in Canada, Silverheels sized up Cody as a fake in the early 1930s, after living with Iron Eyes and Joe [Cody’s other brother] at a Hollywood rooming house, says his widow, Mary, 75. “Jay knew from day one,” she says, “because when Iron wasn’t around, Joe would openly talk about being Italian and that the two of them were brothers. It was that simple.”
Cody seems to have fooled Tim McCoy. It is not surprising that he fooled Keep America Beautiful. But, years after the truth has come out, the organization continues to promote the man and his world-famous image. It hands out an annual Iron Eyes Cody award. In 1998, it released a new 30-second TV PSA, “Back by Popular Neglect,” which ends with a close-up of a poster of Cody’s tear-streaked face.
The greens’ greatest PR-generated image is that tear-streaked face. In a way, this is fitting. From the predictions of a coming ice age to predictions of global warming, from the ever-growing hole in the ozone to the greenhouse effect, the greens have offered junk science encased in superb images. The greatest symbol of their successful deception is the career of Iron Eyes Cody. They still raise money by means of a documented hoax. I cannot resist asking the obvious question:
November 8 , 2001
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