Native American Anti Litter Campaign A Crying Shame

A popular Public Service campaign from the 1970s featured a Native American man named Iron Eyes Cody who’s tearful visage implored people not to litter. In truth his heritage was fabricated.

“People start pollution; people can stop it”. Although the public service campaign was one of the most successful ever created, Iron Eyes Cody’s career encompassed much more than that particular spot. He appeared in an estimated 200 movies and dozens of television shows, typically playing a Native American. Off-screen, he worked faithfully and tirelessly on behalf of the Native American community. Throughout his adult life, Iron Eyes Cody claimed to be of Cherokee/Cree lineage. However the assertion was a lie; Cody was in fact a full-blooded Italian.

His story began in the tiny town of Kaplan, Louisiana, where he was born Espera deCorti in 1904. His parents Antonio deCorti and Francesca Salpietra, had emigrated from Italy at the turn of the century. Espera, who went by the name Oscar, was the second eldest of the couple’s four children.

In 1924, following their father’s death, Oscar and his two brothers, Joseph and Frank, moved to Hollywood, changed their last name to Cody and started working in motion pictures. Joseph and Frank managed to land a few jobs as movie extras, but eventually gave up their acting dreams and moved on to other careers. Oscar, however, had found his niche. He quietly changed his name to Iron Eyes Cody and started passing himself off as a full-blooded Native American.

At the time, no one had reason to challenge him. Cody had a distinctive Native American look, and he took great pains to embrace his new identity and false heritage. He married a Native American woman named Bertha Parker, and together they adopted several Native American children. Iron Eyes almost always wore his long hair in braids and dressed in Native American attire, including beaded moccasins.

In fact, it was Cody’s appearance that made his anti-littering Public Service Announcement such a success. Everyone who saw it assumed that Cody was a real Native American and thus felt tremendous sympathy for him when a bag of garbage was tossed at his feet. Many even thought the tear that ran down his cheek at the ads’ conclusion was real but it was really just a drop of glycerin. The television ad made Cody a household name and brought him quite a bit of attention. In the years that followed, he repeatedly denied nagging rumors that he was not what he claimed to be, and his story finally unraveled in the mid-1990s when his half-sister sent journalists proof that he was actually Italian.

Ultimately it didn’t really matter to most Native Americans that Iron Eyes Cody had lied. He had spent decades working on their behalf, drawing International attention to their concerns. In 1995, Hollywood’s Native American Community honored him for his many charitable endeavors. Iron Eyes Cody, perhaps the most famous Native American who never was, died on January 4th, 1999 at the age of 94.

Native American Background Music
Attribution Creative Commons

Iron Eyes Cody,Trivia,Education,Litter Commercial