by Hugh Gilmore
Iron Eyes Cody was the perfect movie Indian. He appeared in more than 200 of them back in the days when no one called Indians Native Americans. The first New World explorers were looking for a westward passage to India and thought they’d found it, so the natives of this new continent were called Indians. So Iron Eyes was an Indian and he didn’t mind being called one. He was quite successful at being one.
Marshall McLuhan, the media whiz, once said, “We look at the present through a rear view mirror. We march backwards into the future.”
Once the New World invaders had killed most of the indigenous Indians with bullets, diseases and the heartbreak of broken treaties, a wave of artistic nostalgia for the lost frontier arose. On the stage, in music, and especially in the newly developed art of movie-making, the Winning of the West became an extremely popular subject.
For the most part, movie Indians were depicted as savage, treacherous, stubborn and bloodthirsty obstacles to White Progress. There were a few good ones, though. They were proud, courageous, and trustworthy. Iron Eyes Cody was usually one of that kind. He played the “Noble Indian” more than 100 times.
When asked, Iron Eyes Cody told folks he was born on April 3, 1912, near Fort Gibson, Okla. His mother was Cree. His father was mostly Cherokee, he said, and was known as Thomas Longplume. Through time, Iron Eyes’ ancestral name changed to Codey and then Cody.
Iron Eyes Cody entered the movie business around 1925, thanks to his father’s role as technical adviser to a Howard Hughes western. The boy could recite the Great Spirit prayer, do rope tricks, knew sign language and could speak parts of five Indian languages. The family still lived in Oklahoma at the time, but soon moved to California to work with the movie industry. At first Iron Eyes’ father operated a business renting Indian props and costumes to the studios. With time the boy acted in bit parts.
From the very beginning, he said, he tried to convince the studios to avoid clichés about Indian life and present the story of his people with accuracy and dignity. They wouldn’t take his advice, he said, being more interested in making money with bloodthirsty stories. He stayed for the paycheck, but vowed to keep trying to be a positive influence, which actually happened over time.
In one one of his three memoirs, “Iron Eyes Cody: The Proud American,” 1988 (with Marietta Thompson): he appears in publicity stills with such well known people as Tim McCoy, Gene Autry, Lucille Ball, Roy Rogers (making sign language together), Jimmy Cagney, Jane Russell (whom he taught to shoot a bow and arrow for “Paleface”), Bela Lugosi, Bing Crosby, Jim Thorpe, Jay Silverheels, Abbott and Costello, Polly Bergen, Howard Keel, Ronald Reagan, Tom Ewell, Fess Parker, Wally Cox, Stubby Kaye, Mickey Rooney, Dan Blocker, Lee Van Cleef, Ben Johnson and Errol Flynn, to name but a few.
For his unstinting promotion of American Indian causes he was named to nearly every important Indian affairs committee in the United States. His writing describes his meetings with such luminaries as Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley, Walt Disney, Presidents Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan and Pope John Paul II.
Cody was often asked if had posed for the Indian Head U.S. nickel. No, he answered, but that was my uncle, Chief John Big Tree, who also posed for James Earle Fraser’s famous statue “End of the Trail.”
To most Americans Iron Eyes Cody might have remained an obscure cinema footnote, his not having ever had a starring role, but for one famous television commercial. A public service campaign, Keep America Beautiful, emerged to fight the increasing problem of highway litter. The ad agency decided that nothing could be more iconic of a pristine American way of life than an American Indian. And no one looked and acted that role more than Iron Eyes Cody. There was a huge print campaign, including billboards, but nothing made the point as famously as an anti-pollution TV commercial, timed to coincide with the first Earth Day in 1971.
In the commercial (easily seen on YouTube) a solitary Indian paddles his canoe through polluted waters to come ashore on a waste-strewn beach. He takes a few steps just as someone throws a plastic bag of trash from a passing automobile. It lands at his feet. He looks down and then looks up and around at the smoggy, messy American landscape, his noble aboriginal face the only unspoiled sight in this man-ruined environment. The camera delivers a sudden close-up as he turns his gaze to look directly into the camera, a tear falling from his right eye. “People start pollution. People can end it,” solemnly intones the narrator, William Conrad.
The ad was a sudden, overnight sensation. And thus, so too was Iron Eyes Cody, the actor hired to play what people began calling “The Crying Indian.” He became America’s best-known American Indian. The demand for public appearances by him never stopped for the rest of his life.
Oh, there was one small hiccup for a while, but just a little while: In 1996 a half-sister blew his cover. She claimed that Chief Iron Eyes Cody was actually Espera Oscar de Corti. He was born, she said, in Vermilion Parish, Louisiana, in 1904. He was the second son of Antonio de Corti and Frencesca Salpietra, recent immigrants from Sicily. As a teenager he anglicized his name to Corti and it was but a short hop from there to Cody, after Buffalo Bill Cody. Modern biographies now treat the sister’s claim as true.
The reaction to this big reveal? Not much. De Corti avoided the subject, continued his American Indian ancestry claims and pronounced his sister mistaken. The public appearances continued. He was over 90 at the time, and few people felt a need to call him out about it. He’d played the role for so long he had absorbed it deep in his psyche. Perhaps it was the other way around.
Either way, people need heroes with good stories more than they need more tales of ethnic identity theft. Cody died in 1999 and was buried in Hollywood Forever Cemetery. Later that year a Golden Palm Star on the Palm Springs, California, Walk of Stars was dedicated to him.
Hugh Gilmore is the author of several noir novels, a story collection about his old Chestnut Hill bookstore, and, most recently, a memoir titled “My Three Suicides.” All are available in both print and Kindle formats.