The National Congress of American Indians announced Thursday that it had acquired ownership of the well-known “Crying Indian” anti-pollution public service announcement (PSA) advertisement that first aired on Earth Day in 1971.

The advertisement, which raised awareness of environmental protection and became a part of popular culture at the time of its creation, was later known for featuring imagery that stereotyped American Indian and Alaska Native people and misappropriated Native culture.  

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Keep American Beautiful Inc., a non-profit organization that created the ad, decided it was time to officially retire the advertisement.  The organization transfered it to the NCAI Fund, a 501(c)(3) public education nonprofit organization, that plans to retire the ad permanently.   

“NCAI is proud to assume the role of monitoring the use of this advertisement and ensure it is only used for historical context; this advertisement was inappropriate then and remains inappropriate today,” NCAI Executive Director Larry Wright, Jr. said in a statement. “NCAI looks forward to putting this advertisement to bed for good.”

For those who have never seen the ad, it plays out this way: The PSA opens with Iron Eyes Cody, an actor who plays an Indian, paddling his canoe in a waterway that becomes polluted with debris. The Indian then pulls the canoe from the water and takes it to shore and then walks towards a freeway and witnesses a bag tossed out the window of a moving vehicle onto the ground. The impact of the bag being tossed from the vehicle lands with such force it causes the bag to break open and spill out fast-food wrappers that land on his moccasins.

In a voice over, a narrator says: “Some people have a deep abiding respect for the natural beauty that was once this country. And some people don’t.” 

As the PSA concludes, a close up of Iron Eyes Cody’s face shows a single tear streaming down his face.

The PSA was effective at the time, in part, because it coincided with the takeover of Alcatraz Island by a group of  Native Americans. The events at Alcatraz created a surge of popularity and awareness of Native Americans at the same time that the general public was becoming aware of the need to protect Mother Earth. 

At the time it was shown, most people assumed Iron Eyes Cody was in fact a Native American. He was not. He was an Italian American actor.


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Levi Rickert
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Levi "Calm Before the Storm" Rickert (Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation) is the founder, publisher and editor of Native News Online. Rickert was awarded Best Column 2021 Native Media Award for the print/online category by the Native American Journalists Association. He serves on the advisory board of the Multicultural Media Correspondents Association. He can be reached at [email protected].