Iron Eyes Cody: The Man Inspiring You to up Your Aluminum Can

In class, we just finished reading Reservation Reelism by Michelle H. Raheja. It’s about the relationship between American Indians and film- how film has portrayed Indians over the years. Rahja discusses some Indian stereotypes (the “one with nature” Indian, the vanishing Indian, the silent Indian, the victimized Indian etc…) and how films featuring Indians help to further instill the stereotypes into our brains. Though at first I was skeptical of this book, I am thoroughly enjoying it.

Rahja goes into detail and really does prove the presence and exploitation of Indian stereotypes in film, but does so in a neutral tone- she doesn’t scare me with her writing like some other passionate and opinionated writers do. In my opinion, the most interesting part of the book so far is the chapter on Iron Eyes Cody (chapter 3 “Tears and Trash”).

Iron Eyes Cody was what they call a “Hollywood Indian”, or an Indian actor. He started his acting career when he was only twelve appearing in over 200 films over the course of his life. The most notable films he was in are “The Scarlet Letter” with John Wayne in 1934 and “Sitting Bull” in 1954. However, he is associated most with his role as “the crying Indian” in the “Keep America Beautiful” Public Service Announcements first airing in the early 1970s, and then again in the late 1990s.

Not only was Iron Eyes Cody a notable Indian actor, but he was also a notable Indian activist. He helped reservations out financially, even paying for funerals on reservation. He was well liked in the American eyes. With the help of a ghostwriter, Cody wrote an autobiography about his childhood on the reservation; apparently he was half Cherokee and half Cree. He wore Indian garb on camera and off and had the Indian knickknacks all around his house, proving his authenticity to the white American people. It is safe to say that Cody loved being Indian….or so you thought.

Twist in the plot: Iron Eyes Cody is not actually of Indian decent. Can you believe it? And after all that build up!

The famous crying Indian is not Indian; he is Sicilian. Apparently, the incorrect way he wore his feather on his head gave it away, and the fact that his sister spoke up providing family history proving Iron Eyes Cody was born Espera Oscar DeCorti to Sicilian immigrants and raised in Louisiana.

But here’s the big discussion question: Does it really matter that he wasn’t Indian?

It’s a tricky question. Maybe he should not have lied for his entire life about his true identity, but at the same time, he made a really big difference in the American Indian community. He didn’t just wear the clothes, he was active and genuinely cared about the Indian people who he considered his own.

But then there’s the concept of “passing”. Because of the United State’s racist and discriminatory past, many Native Americans who happened to have lighter skin tried and succeeded at passing to be white. They tried to blend in to the majority. But Cody, did the exact opposite, and in doing so further instilled an Indian stereotype: the ghostly Indian. As Raheja writes: “Passing figures force us to confront the dominant culture’s desire for discrete, bounded, essential categories of identification. Indian ghosts, as I read the character Cody plays in the public service announcement and many of his off-screen appearances, are the uncanny, destabilizing sparks that flare up in the tension between vanishing Indian rhetoric and Indigenous resistance and self-representation” (Raheja 107).

So as you can see, Cody represented and instilled a stereotype not appreciated by the Native American people. This is a difficult situation because his heart was in the right place, he cared a lot about his fake heritage, but presented his care and action in a somewhat offensive manner.

Ponder on that for a while and come to your own conclusion.

In case you’re not familiar with the commercials Iron Eyes Cody is famous for, I’ve posted one below. Enjoy!

Work cited:

 Raheja, Michelle H. Reservation Reelism: Redfacing, Visual Sovereignty, and Representations of Native Americans in Film. Lincoln: University of Nebraska, 2010. Print.

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About annieais101

I am an 18 year old freshman at the University of Illinois. Driving towards a philosophy major and a music minor, my number one priority right now is school work. However, when I'm not in school or studying for classes, music and my friends are my world. I can't wait to expand this blog and really make it my own! I've never done anything like this before, so it should be fun!
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