Buffy Sainte-MariePublicity photo

You may be old enough to remember a time when tossing an empty pop can or candy wrapper from a moving car didn’t seem like a big deal. 

Modern-day environmentalism was largely a product of the counterculture movement of the 1960s. It was a time when the younger generation questioned the wisdom of the society they inherited — its relentless march towards industrialization, its zeal for war and its myriad racial and social injustices. 

So, when public service advertisement nicknamed the “Crying Indian” first aired on American TV in 1971, the timing couldn’t have been better. 

It showed an Indigenous man in full native garb paddling his canoe through increasingly littered waters. He comes ashore and walks by more litter, finally stopping at a highway. Someone tosses empty food wrappers out a car window and they land at his feet. 

The camera pans up and zooms in on his face, where a single tear has formed under his right eye. 

The message, bolstered by a narrated script, is pretty simple: we’re ruining our natural environment with our garbage. Show some respect. Smarten up. Don’t litter. 

The ad ran for several years and included a poster campaign. It even won awards. But there’s a deception behind it few people realized at the time. 

It was produced by a group called Keep America Beautiful, a consortium not of environmentally conscious agencies but of members of the food and beverage industry, the very industry that was creating so much solid waste in the first place. 

At the time, these companies were fighting calls for more environmentally conscious policies such as biodegradable packaging and bottle returns. Thus, the true goal of the ad was really to shift the focus away from the industry’s accountability and onto the personal responsibility of consumers. 

Shell game 

The Crying Indian ad has been cited by climatologist Michael Mann, among others, to demonstrate how fossil fuel companies are now trying to do the same thing: discourage environmental policies that affect them directly and instead get people thinking more about their own carbon footprints. 

The latter is important but, without stronger regulations and disincentives for the fossil fuel industry, not nearly sufficient to fight climate change. 

The Crying Indian ad contained another deception that’s instructive in light of a recent exposé by thw CBC about folk-singing superstar Buffy Sainte-Marie. 

The public broadcaster revealed in an online article and in last week’s episode of The Fifth Estate that Sainte-Marie apparently was not adopted from the Piopot tribe in Saskatchewan as she has long claimed. 

The report was backed up with a birth record indicating she was actually born in Massachusetts to the couple she claimed were only her adoptive parents. 

The story has elicited a torrent of pain and anger from Sainte-Marie’s fans, many of whom either refuse to believe the allegations or question the motive for causing unnecessary grief for the octogenarian singer. 

Hollywood star 

As you may have guessed by now, the actor who played the Crying Indian in those TV commercials 50 years ago was also not Indigenous. 

Iron Eyes Cody frequently appeared on screen in character as a Native American and embodied the persona in real life. But he was actually of Italian descent. His birth name was Espera Oscar de Corti. (Sainte-Marie’s adoptive and/or birth parents were also Italian American.) 

It wasn’t uncommon for non-natives to play Indigenous roles in films at the time. In fact, it was more the rule than the exception. 

That practice has evolved over time, as has the way in which Indigenous characters are recruited and portrayed. 

When director Roland Joffé decided to shoot the 1986 film “The Mission,” based loosely on encounters between Jesuit missionaries and the Guarani Indians of Paraguay in the 1700s, he sought out members of South American tribes to play Indigenous roles. Since descendants of the Guarani tribe were sparse, Joffé found his cast members among the Waunana and the Onaní tribes of Colombia. 

In preparing for his current film “Killers of the Flower Moon,” Martin Scorsese radically changed the focus of the story after consulting members of the Osage tribe in Oklahoma. The end result was more an exploration of the relationship between the white antagonist and his Osage wife, rather than the fledgling FBI’s involvement in the murder investigation. 


Long gone are the days when Italian immigrants acted as romanticized placeholders for living, breathing Indians, slapping on face paint and eagle feathers to pose for the cameras.

These days, Indigenous communities in in North America want to see their true selves reflected in artistic endeavours from top to bottom — from directors and producers to actors, artists and writers — in a way that accurately captures their legacy and affirms their continued existence as a culture.  

Buffy Sainte-Marie’s career was born roughly in the middle of Iron Eyes Cody’s long film and television legacy. 

Like Sainte-Marie, Cody claimed at different times to be a member of different tribes. He also denied any subterfuge when outed by members of his own family. Only after his death in 1999 was it revealed that his parents were Sicilian. 

As a high profile artist who identified as Indigenous, Sainte-Marie has been able to lend her voice to Indigenous causes in a way few could ever hope to. 

One can hardly toss aside such a significant contribution over what some might see as a harmless white lie, assuming it is one. 

The Piopot tribe in Saskatchewan officially adopted her as one of their own, and have since announced they have no intention of withdrawing her status. 

In most of her fans’ eyes, she will always be Indigenous. 

But whether it’s through denial or delusion — or some even more tangled web of confusion — many Indigenous advocates are deeply concerned about the “pretendian” problem and the insult and injury it can cause. 

It’s not just about goodwill. It’s about not kidnapping the narrative for one’s own benefit.

Trent University professor Finis Dunaway wrote this for The Chicago Tribune about the famous Keep America Beautiful ad: 

“One of the commercial’s striking ironies is that Iron Eyes Cody became the Crying Indian at the same moment that actual Indians occupied Alcatraz Island in San Francisco Bay, the very same body of water in which the actor paddled his canoe. For almost two years, from late 1969 through mid-1971, a period that overlapped with both the filming and release of the Crying Indian commercial, indigenous activists demanded that the U.S. government cede control of the abandoned island. They presented themselves not as past-tense Indians, but as contemporary citizens laying claim to the land. The Alcatraz activists sought to challenge the legacies of colonialism and contest contemporary injustices — to address, in other words, the realities of native lives erased by the anachronistic Indians who typically populate Hollywood film. By contrast, the Crying Indian appears completely powerless. In the commercial, all he can do is lament the land his people lost.” 

By Peter Jackson, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

Original Published on Oct 30, 2023 at 19:37

This item reprinted with permission from   The Telegram   St. John's, Newfoundland

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