On Earth Day, 1971, nonprofit organization Keep America Beautiful launched what the Ad Council would later call one of the “50 greatest commercials of all time.”
Dubbed “The Crying Indian,” the one-minute PSA features a Native American man paddling down a junk-infested river, surrounded by smog, pollution, and trash; as he hauls his canoe onto the plastic-infested shore, a bag of rubbish is tossed from a car window, exploding at his feet.
The camera then pans to the Indian’s cheerless face just as a single tear rolls down his cheek.
The ad, which sought to combat pollution, was widely successful: It secured two Clio awards, incited a frenzy of community involvement, and helped reduce litter by 88% across 38 states.
Its star performer, a man who went by the name “Iron Eyes Cody,” subsequently became the “face of Native Indians,” and was honored with a star on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame. Advertisers estimate that his face, plastered on billboards, posters, and magazine ads, has been viewed 14 billion times, easily making him the most recognizable Native American figure of the century.
But while Hollywood trumpeted Iron Eyes Cody as a “true Native American” and profited from his ubiquitous image, the man himself harbored an unspoken secret: he was 100% Italian.
The True Story of ‘The Crying Indian’