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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 1,578

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This is the grave of Iron Eyes Cody and, uh, Mrs. Iron Eyes Cody.

Espera Oscar de Corti was born in Kaplan, Louisiana in 1904. He was about as Native American as I am. His parents were Sicilian immigrants. He grew up poor. His parents ran a grocery store, but at some point his dad bailed on the family, moved to Texas, and started a new family. By the 1920s, he and his brothers all moved to California to get work in the movies. This is when they changed their last name to Cody, at least professionally. His brothers really just got work as extras and working in the crew, eventually leaving the profession. But Cody decided to claim he was an Indian. Now, at this time, the late 20s and early 30s, no one really cared either way. Most of the “Indians” in the movies were not indigenous at all. Cody looked swarthy, he would do. But still, he tried to claim authenticity from the beginning. He claimed he was half Cherokee and half Cree, or whatever on a given day as it seems he was not exactly consistent in his lies.

In any case, Cody got plenty of work. He was in The Big Trail, with John Wayne, in 1930, among many, many other films. They were usually westerns and he always played the Indian, which meant talking in gibberish and being there to either support the white man or be defeated by the white man. He played Crazy Horse in the 1954 film Sitting Bull (J. Carroll Naish played the title role). He was in The Great Sioux Massacre in 1965 with Joseph Cotten. He was in lots of mostly very bad movies. And then of course there was TV. Endless work for a fake Indian in the westerns that dominated the early TV era. He also was a personal friend of Walt Disney, which guaranteed him a decent bit of work over the years.

Then, in 1970, came the Crying Indian ad. This was a classic advertisement of the environmental movement. It featured Cody, an Indian of course, as a solitary man canoeing through paradise. Then he reaches “civilization” and it is filled with garbage and pollution and everything horrible. The camera sees a driver throw some trash at the window and it lands at Cody’s feet. He then turns to the camera and a single tear comes from his eye.

This ad became the most iconic advertisement in the environmental movement and one of the most iconic in television history. It captured a moment when Americans were paying attention to their environmental impact in a way that they hadn’t before and the overall message was important. The problems however are significant. First, it plays on the Noble Savage stereotype about Native Americans that had existed since at least Rousseau and which whites had already used for 200 or more years at this point as a way to reflect upon themselves. In this trope, the indigenous people never have thoughts, feelings, or complexities. They are strictly there to frame the problems with white society. The hippies and counterculture did this all the time too, so it’s hardly surprising that it would be picked up on in a very successful ad.

The other problem is that IRON EYES CODY IS ITALIAN!!! The history of racial passing in American life is long and complicated, as complex as race is itself. It’s fairly obvious why someone of an oppressed race would pass as someone who is of the oppressor race. Your life is just going to be easier. The more interesting question is when people from the dominant race decide to pass as the member of the oppressed race. What does that do for them?

Now, I want to complicated this a bit. We live in an unfortunate moment around these issues in the sense that you have weirdos like Rachel Dolezal passing as Black and not only not lying about when caught but defending it as completely legitimate. This kind of situation is obviously intolerable and unacceptable, not to mention the ultimate all time expression of white privilege. But what you also have is people wanting to draw sharp lines around a history that is nothing but blurry lines. In short, after hundreds of years of racial intermixing, what does it mean to be a Native American? Do you need to be an enrolled member of a tribe? Do you need to have a certain percentage of Native blood, whatever that even means? This matters a ton today because you have some tribes trying to reduce the number of people who can claim their citizenship in order to divide that sweet casino money in fewer ways and you also have people trying to expose frauds who claim indigenous heritage as just another Iron Eyes Cody.

But some of these people are race hustlers themselves; knowing that liberal whites will be on their side based on the claim alone without doing any of the work to understand the situation of family histories, they will be able to gain greater authority over who is and is not an Indian, which is a deeply problematic position for one person or group of people to have. Tribes can choose of course who is an enrolled member and who is not. But that covers by no means every person who have Native heritage, including many leading indigenous figures in the late 20th century. And what happens when you are talking about people in the South who have intermixed for 200 years? The census records are tremendously inconsistent, documents made by whites where for a very long time the census taker, who was just some local yokel, could say the person was whatever race they wanted. So census records on the same person change the race by the decade. The whole thing is a complete mess and people are getting hurt, with their identities questioned and having no way to defend themselves. The fact that people like Iron Eyes Cody existed just makes all of this so, so much worse.

Also, Mrs. Iron Eyes Cody–and really, labeling her this way on her own grave is one of the most insulting things I can imagine, especially given that her husband was lying about his ethnic background–was in fact Bertha Parker. She was an Abenaki and Seneca archeologist who may in fact have been the first Native American professional archeologist. had worked on both digs and in museums for a long time. She’s actually pretty fascinating in her own right–her mother had gotten work in the Pocahontas show in circuses and brought her daughter along. She had married twice before, including to a paleontologist who died after getting sick from breathing in too much guano dust in a cave expedition. She married Cody in 1936. What did she know about her husband? I don’t know. I do know that they adopted a couple of Native kids and raised them as such. In any case, evidently she didn’t matter enough to him to even have her actual name placed on the grave when she died in 1978, at the age of 71.

It was not until 1996 that the New Orleans Times-Picayune ran an article exposing Cody’s lies. And to be clear, he had so embraced this that in his later years, he just wore “Indian” clothing every day and presented himself as such all the time. He of course denied that he was an Italian, but he was in fact an Italian.

Cody died of mesothelioma in 1999. He was 94 years old.

Iron Eyes Cody is buried in Hollywood Forever Cemetery, Hollywood, California.

If you would like this series to visit actual Native Americans, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Raymond Nakai is in Lukachukai, Arizona and Vine Deloria, Jr., is in Golden, Colorado. Previous posts in this series are archived here and here.

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