The Crying Indian
How an environmental icon helped sell cans -- and sell out environmentalism
by Ginger Strand
IF YOU WATCHED television at any point in the seventies, you saw him: America’s most famous Indian. Star of perhaps the best-known public service announcement ever, he was a black-braided, buckskinned, cigar-store native come to life, complete with single feather and stoic frown. In the spot’s original version, launched by Keep America Beautiful on Earth Day 1971, he paddles his canoe down a pristine river to booming drumbeats. He glides past flotsam and jetsam. The music grows bombastic, wailing up a movie-soundtrack build. He rows into a city harbor: ship, crane, a scrim of smog. The Indian pulls his boat onto a bank strewn with litter and gazes upon a freeway.
“Some people have a deep, abiding respect for the natural beauty that was once this country,” intones a basso profundo voice, “and some people don’t.” On those words, someone flings a bag of trash from a passing car. It scatters at the Indian’s feet. He looks into the camera for the money shot. A single tear rolls down his cheek.
“People start pollution. People can stop it,” declares the narrator.
Rewind. Replay. Thanks to YouTube, you can watch this ad over and over, framed by excited viewer comments: “A classic!!” “Very powerful.” “Best PSA ever made.” Most YouTubers agree with the trade journal Ad Age, which included the campaign in the century’s top hundred. Some netizens even claim the ad motivated them to pick up trash or chide litterers. The Advertising Educational Foundation declares the spot “synonymous with environmental concern.” Wikipedia says it “has been widely credited with inspiring America’s fledgling environmental movement.” The crying Indian wept for our sins, and from his tears sprang forth a new Green Age.
This is remarkable, since the ad was a fraud. It’s no big secret that the crying Indian was neither crying nor Indian. Even some YouTubers point out that he was played by character actor Iron Eyes Cody, whose specialty was playing Indians in Hollywood westerns. The Italian-American Cody—his real name was Espera Oscar DeCorti—“passed” as a Cherokee-Cree Indian on and off camera. His long black braids were a wig, his dark complexion deepened with makeup. His fraud was not ill-willed: he also supported Indian rights, married an Indian, and adopted Indian children.
The fraudulence of Keep America Beautiful is less well known. In a recent survey, respondents were given a list of “environmental groups” and asked “Which organization do you believe is most believable?” Thirty-six percent chose Keep America Beautiful—it beat out the Nature Conservancy (29 percent), the Sierra Club (17 percent), Greenpeace (15 percent), and the Environmental Defense Fund (3 percent). Over two million Americans acted on that belief in 2006, volunteering for Keep America Beautiful activities: picking up litter, removing graffiti, painting buildings, and planting greenery. Many may not have realized they were handing their free time to a front group for the beer bottlers, can companies, and soda makers who crank out the containers that constitute half of America’s litter. Or that this front group opposes the reuse and recycling legislation that might better address the problem. The information is not hard to find. Ted Williams wrote about it in 1990 for Audubon. Online, you can find many more narratives of KAB’s real motives, including a summary by the Container Recycling Institute.
And yet, even with Cody outed as Italian and KAB unmasked as a trade group, the crying Indian remains a beloved environmental icon. Why did he touch such a chord? One day in June, while visiting family in Michigan, I decide to find out.
TO GET TO Illinois from western Michigan, you ease round the bottom of what Michiganians call “the Lake,” then drop down into Indiana. Almost immediately, the landscape becomes classic heartland: seemingly endless, flat cornfields like the one where Cary Grant flees a crop-dusting plane in North by Northwest. Each small town pivots on a grain elevator, the horizon’s only transect. I stick to blue highways, remarkably free of generic sprawl, and head west. I think, Indiana.
As a child, I had a puzzle of the United States, each state a separate wooden piece. I liked stacking them in two piles: Indian names, European names. I was always fascinated by place names, especially Indian ones. Even as a kid, I found it odd that pioneers should name their homes after the people they had displaced to build them.
But that’s frequently the role Native Americans are given by American culture: marker of loss. Early American landscape paintings often included a token Indian: America was the new Eden, complete with mournful, expelled Adam. In the early nineteenth century, as “Indian removal” became federal policy, artists like George Catlin traveled the West, painting Plains Indians in war paint or ceremonial dress. Their still, solemn faces have a funerary tone. At the same time, hugely popular “Indian dramas” swept stages, almost always ending with an Indian character’s noble death. Yet even as these stage natives reassured audiences with their disappearing act, they embodied the young nation’s ideals: sacrifice, nobility, and honor. Depicting Indians as a “vanishing race,” these works registered an odd anxiety about their vanishing. What if in building our new world, they asked, we actually destroy its founding values?
At nine a.m. I arrive at my destination, the Advertising Council Archives at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. The UIUC library is classic land-grant college architecture, monumental yet homespun: huge hallways with soaring ceilings, wide staircases with thick wooden railings. The Advertising Council Archives are in the basement, down a long, tunnel-like hallway. Before going in, I stop to examine a glass display case outside the door. It celebrates “the Advertising Council’s commitment to the environment.” Typical is an ad from a 1994 “Clean Water” campaign. “There are toxic chemicals in our water,” it declares. “Such as oil. And pesticides. You might think industry is to blame. But they’re only part of the problem. You and I, in our everyday lives, are also responsible for a tremendous amount of water pollution.”
People start pollution. People can stop it.
KEEP AMERICA BEAUTIFUL first came to the Advertising Council for support in 1960. An advertising trade group, the Ad Council recruits and oversees ad agencies as they create pro-bono public service ads for nonprofits and government. The Council then coordinates donations of media for the ads. They are famously successful. Working with the Council, volunteer agencies have churned out loads of catchy taglines for righteous causes: “Buckle up for safety”; “A mind is a terrible thing to waste”; “Friends don’t let friends drive drunk.” They created Smokey the Bear, McGruff the Crime Dog, and Vince and Larry, the Crash Test Dummies.
Perhaps even more famous are the Council’s World War II campaigns: “Loose lips sink ships” and Rosie the Riveter’s “We can do it!” Formed in 1941, the Council was originally intended to mitigate the antibusiness, collectivist side of the New Deal. Its founding mission was defined as “reteaching a belief in a dynamic economy.” But after Pearl Harbor, the ad men teamed up with the Office of War Information to crank out propaganda, encouraging Americans to buy war bonds, enlist, work in factories, and save tin cans, scrap rubber, and waste fats. At war’s end, however, the Ad Council happily returned to its true role: prophet of endless growth.
Looking back from America’s current position as global missionary of free-market gospel, it’s easy to forget that enterprise American-style—dedicated to the proposition that consuming equals happiness—once needed the hard sell here, too. But the ad men knew it. In 1945, the Council issued a pamphlet outlining its new purpose. The war was over, but a new battle was on: the “battle for markets.” Europe, they declared, was in ruins. State socialism was creeping through the Old World. America, too, would move left, unless advertising could “resume its star role as a profitable seller of goods.” This meant recasting the American Dream as the endless pursuit of plenty.
“Only if we have large demands can we expect large production,” wrote economist Robert Nathan in 1944. “Therefore, it is important that in planning for the postwar period, we give adequate consideration to the need for ever-increasing consumption on the part of our people as one of the prime requisites for prosperity.” This was more than economics: it was politics. An ongoing cycle of “mass employment, mass production, mass advertising, mass distribution and mass ownership of the products of industry,” wrote the Saturday Evening Post, would make the U.S. “the last bulwark” of democracy. Consuming became national policy: the 1946 Employment Act named “purchasing power” as one of the things government was meant to promote.
Thus prompted, Americans of the late 1940s got down to the business of buying things. In the first five years of peace, consumer spending increased by 60 percent. People bought cars and boats and clothing. They bought furniture and appliances. They bought Tupperware. Most of all, they bought houses. Housing starts went from 142,000 in 1944 to 2 million in 1950. The Ad Council cheered them on, casting consumption as what distinguished happy capitalists from those poor benighted souls living under the communist boot.
A 1948 Ad Council pamphlet, “The Miracle of America,” is typical. In it, Uncle Sam—shown striding across the cover with a toolkit and rolled-up sleeves—explains American free enterprise to an average family. The key, Uncle says, is ever-more-efficient production: “The mainspring of the American standard of living is High and Increasing Productivity!” America’s high rate of consumption—“We take abundance for granted”—is a sign of superiority. The U.S. has only one-fifteenth of the world’s population, the booklet explains, but consumes “more than half of the world’s coffee and rubber, almost half of the steel, a quarter of the coal and nearly two-thirds of the crude oil.” This, the Ad Council assured the nation, was Success.
“I HAVE OBSERVED that they will not be troubled with superfluous commodities,” wrote Thomas Morton about New England’s Indians in 1637. Arriving in the Plymouth colony in 1623, Morton, a freethinking Anglican who’d hung out with a group of libertines (including William Shakespeare) in law school, quickly grew tired of Pilgrim prissiness. He set up a rival trading post called Mare Mount, where he commenced retail and revelry with the natives. His paganish Mayday beer bash particularly outraged the Pilgrims; they chopped down his maypole—twice. (The episode became a famous Nathaniel Hawthorne story.) Finally, Miles Standish—“Captain Shrimp,” the reprobate Morton called him—was sent to arrest him. Standish cleverly arrived when Morton and his band were drunk, and the New World’s first frat party summarily ended. Back in England, Morton wrote a book about his experiences, New English Canaan. In it, he gives an atypically glowing early account of native ways. “According to human reason, guided only by the light of nature,” he declares, “these people lead the more happy and freer life, being void of care, which torments so many minds of so many Christians: they are not delighted in baubles, but in useful things.”
Morton kicked off an American stereotype, one all the more powerful for having some basis in truth: the ideal of the “noble savage” who rejects European commodity culture. The reality is more complicated: the natives, of course, were savvy traders. But Morton highlights an essential contrast between Native American markets and those of the colonists: Indians valued acquisition for use, not for its own sake. “They love not to be cumbered with many utensils,” as Morton puts it. They knew the word “enough.” Their markets weren’t based on an ideology of infinite expansion.
Markets tend to get saturated. Even with planned obsolescence—another postwar innovation—people’s needs eventually level off. After the initial postwar exuberance, American consumption slowed. That fact alarmed the captains of industry. In 1953, economist and Lehman Brothers banker Paul Mazur fretted that “it is absolutely necessary that the products that roll from the assembly lines of mass production be consumed at an equally rapid rate.” Throughout the fifties, the Ad Council tried to jump-start consumption with ad campaigns like 1954’s “The Future of America” and 1956’s “People’s Capitalism,” all of which equated American freedom with mass consumption. Nevertheless, in 1958, people bought even less stuff. The Council launched “Confidence in a Growing America,” designed to “encourage consumer spending.” Supported by forty-one companies, it was nicknamed the “Buy Campaign.”
But how do you get people to buy if their demands are sated? That’s where the folks of Keep America Beautiful—rejecters of reusability—come in. Things that last forever you only buy once. But something you use once and throw away: that’s the perfect product.
“THEIR NATURAL DRINK is of the crystal fountain,” Morton wrote of the natives, “and this they take up in their hands, by joining them close together.” He was fibbing a bit—he himself sold the Indians spirits—but he was making a point. Hydration, too, has its politics.
After the hand-cupping came the pewter mug, the canteen, and then eureka! the glass bottle. Before the 1950s, most beverage bottles were refillable. As late as 1960, refillables still delivered 95 percent of the nation’s soft drinks. But the beer industry, shifting from local small brewers to large, centrally located corporate producers, was finding transporting all those empties increasingly expensive. They began turning to new “one-way” or disposable bottles. By the end of the 1950s, half the nation’s beer would be in throwaway containers. Many of them were ending up as roadside trash.
In 1953, Vermont’s state legislature had a brain wave: beer companies start pollution, legislation can stop it. They passed a statute banning the sale of beer and ale in one-way bottles. It wasn’t a deposit law—it declared that beer could only be sold in returnable, reusable bottles. Anchor-Hocking, a glass manufacturer, immediately filed suit, calling the law unconstitutional. The Vermont Supreme Court disagreed in May 1954, and the law took effect. That October, Keep America Beautiful was born, declaring its intention to “break Americans of the habit of tossing litter into streets and out of car windows.” The New York Times noted that the group’s leaders included “executives of concerns manufacturing beer, beer cans, bottles, soft drinks, chewing gum, candy, cigarettes and other products.” These disciples of disposability, led by William C. Stolk, president of the American Can Company, set about changing the terms in the conversation about litter.
The packaging industry justifies disposables as a response to consumer demand: buyers wanted convenience; packagers simply provided it. But that’s not exactly true. Consumers had to be trained to be wasteful. Part of this re-education involved forestalling any debate over the wisdom of creating disposables in the first place, replacing it with an emphasis on “proper” disposal. Keep America Beautiful led this refocusing on the symptoms rather than the system. The trouble was not their industry’s promulgation of throwaway stuff; the trouble was those oafs who threw it away.
At the same time, the container industry lobbied hard behind the scenes. In 1957, with little fanfare, Vermont’s senate caved to the pressure and declined to renew its reusable bottle law.
In 1960, the year Keep America Beautiful teamed up with the Ad Council, disposables delivered just 3 percent of the soft-drink market. By 1966, it was 12 percent, and growing fast. As was the Ad Council. By then it was the world’s biggest advertiser.
WHEN ASKED if their family tree contains any Indian branches, most Americans will say yes. In my own family, the putative native progenitor was said to be a great-grandfather some times removed. Cherokee is what we were told as kids. Given the family’s deep Michigan roots this doesn’t seem likely, unless someone took a serious wrong turn on the Trail of Tears. As an adult I learned that this family mythology was common—though its most common manifestation is a mythic Cherokee matriarch. Considering this syndrome—you might call it delusions of Pocahontas—only fuels my obsession with the crying Indian. Keep America Beautiful tapped into something very deep in the American psyche. But it took them a decade to figure out how to do it.
In 1962, Michigan considered a ban on no-return bottles. Keep America Beautiful openly opposed it. Throughout the sixties, Keep America Beautiful and the Ad Council battled a growing demand for legislation with an increasing vilification of the individual. They spawned the slogan “Every litter bit hurts” and popularized the term “litterbug.” In 1967, meeting at the Yale Club, they decided to go negative. “There seemed to be mutual agreement,” wrote campaign coordinator David Hart, “that our ‘soft sell’ used in previous years could now be replaced by a more emphatic approach to the problem by saying that those who litter are ‘slobs.’” The next year, planners upped the ante, calling litterers “pigs.” The South Texas Pork Producers Council wrote in to complain.
At the same time, KAB’s corporate sponsors made sure their own glass containers and cans never appeared as litter in the ads. This hypocrisy did not go entirely unnoticed. In the late 1960s, a noncorporate faction within the Ad Council, led by Dartmouth president John Sloan Dickey, began to call for Keep America Beautiful to move from litter to the larger problem of environmental pollution. They threatened to scuttle Ad Council support for further antilitter campaigns. Backed into a corner, KAB directors agreed to expand their work to address “the serious menace of all pollutants to the nation’s health and welfare.”
Clearly a more subtle approach was necessary. The Ad Council’s volunteer coordinator for the Keep America Beautiful campaign was an executive from the American Can Company. With him at the helm, a new ad agency was brought in—Marsteller, who happened to be American Can’s own ad agency. The visual arm of Burson-Marsteller, the global public relations firm famous for its list of clients with environment-related publicity problems,* Marsteller crafted the new approach. The crying Indian campaign, premiering on Earth Day 1971, had it all: a heart-wrenching central figure, an appeal to mythic America, and a catchy slogan. There was a pro forma gesture in the direction of ecology—the Indian paddles by some belching smokestacks, after all—and the language had shifted from “littering” to “pollution.” But the message was the same: quit tossing coffee cups out of the window of your Chevy Chevelle, you pig, and America’s environmental problems will end.
IN 1970, as Marsteller hatched the ad that would seal his fame, Iron Eyes Cody was busy making film westerns. He played a medicine man in A Man Called Horse, Apache chief Santana in El Condor, and a character named Crazy Foot in a comedy called Cockeyed Cowboys of Calico County. As in the earlier Indian plays, Indians in westerns are usually allied with nature, wilderness, old codes of vengeance and honor—the vanishing past that civilization must replace.
But in the questioning sixties, the inevitable march of manifest destiny began to be examined for its dark side. As social unrest accelerated, the counterculture began taking up Indian-ness to express a rejection of the status quo. In 1969, Native American Vine Deloria published Custer Died for Your Sins, a scathingly hilarious manifesto diagnosing the epidemic of bad faith in Indian-white relations, and advocating a new “tribalism” bent on “rejection of the consumer mania which plagues society as a whole.” In 1970, Dee Brown published his influential Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, a history of U.S. government treachery toward natives that questioned the inevitability of empire. The same year, the tragicomic epic Little Big Man played Custer’s last stand as an analogue for the moral morass unfolding in Vietnam. Anti-war protesters adopted fringed jackets, beads, and braids. The Indian was still a symbol of America’s lost principles. But, in a Mortonesque revival, he was also becoming a living alternative to the postwar culture of consumption.
In adopting the Indian as a symbol but turning his rejection of consumerism into a rebuke to individual laziness, Marsteller and Keep America Beautiful—underwritten by the Ad Council—struck greenwash gold. Their Indian evoked the deep discontents afoot in the culture. But they co-opted the icon of resistance and made him support the interests of the very consumer culture he appeared to protest. There he stood, stoic and sad, a rebuke to individuals rather than a rejection of the ideology of waste. But then, that was the very ideology the Ad Council had promoted all along.
It was an elegantly closed circle. The titans of packaging pushed throwaways into production. The Ad Council preached the creed of consumption, assuring Americans that the road to prosperity was paved with trash. The people bought; the people threw away. Then, the same industries and advertisers turned around and called them pigs. The people shamefacedly cleaned up the trash. And the packagers, pointing to the cleaned-up landscape, just went on making more of it.
ON MY WAY HOME from central Illinois, I stop to get a sandwich at the only place I can find: Subway. It’s just off a highway exit, and I can hear the gears shifting on trucks as they accelerate up the on-ramp next door. I stand in front of the fridge staring at my options. Soda, water, energy drinks, juice. Plastic, aluminum, plastic. At Subway even apples—one of nature’s most perfectly packaged fruits—come presliced in plastic bags. I ask the clerk for a paper cup of tap water. She eyes me as if suspecting I’m the Unabomber’s unknown accomplice. I feel like the Unabomber’s unknown accomplice, because this small act, I know, is ridiculous. It’s not enough.
Symbolic protest rarely is. In 1976, after KAB testified against a proposed California bottle deposit law, the EPA and seven environmental groups, including the Sierra Club and The Wilderness Society, resigned from its advisory board. Activists declared KAB a “front group.” But by then, being outed didn’t matter. The group’s work was largely done. In 1976, two-thirds of America’s soft drinks and nearly four-fifths of its beer came in disposables. Today, every American throws away about three hundred pounds of solid waste a year, about one-third of it packaging. Sixty percent of that comes from food and beverages.
Eleven states have succeeded in passing bottle bills. Beverage container recycling rates in those states are roughly double rates in nondeposit states. But in shifting the debate to bottle deposit legislation—which it opposed—KAB still won, because it shut down debate over whether disposable beverage containers were a good idea in the first place. Vermont’s original 1953 law would have required manufacturers to accept and refill their empties. No one’s talking about that now.
ENVIRONMENTALISM URGES us to consider the consequences of our actions. But what if by focusing on our individual actions—what we can do—we lose sight of the larger issue of what we can’t do—what has been made impossible by the way the world now works? I leave Illinois with a nagging feeling that I’m missing a piece of the puzzle. I find it in an unexpected place: about sixty miles east of Portland, Oregon, on the banks of the Columbia River.
The Dalles, Oregon, is the site of one of the Pacific Northwest’s most longstanding and cherished Native American trading sites: Celilo Falls. Once a waterfall with a peak flow about ten times that of Niagara, today Celilo has vanished. It lies at the bottom of the reservoir behind The Dalles Dam, a mile-and-a-half-long concrete mouth, gates lined up like teeth, that has swallowed this stretch of the Columbia. At a Citgo station near the dam, a few Indians are parked in lawn chairs by a cooler with a hand-lettered sign: SALMON. The red plastic box sweats in the sun, entombing the sorry remnants of Celilo’s once-famous salmon runs. At the dam visitors center, on the Oregon side, talk quickly turns to Google. The sachems of search have built a giant data center about five miles downstream, in The Dalles industrial park. “I hear they’re running an extension cord over there from here,” jokes the Army Corps of Engineers docent. Outside, the reservoir glints flinty blue in the sun.
I drive to the data center and park in order to circumnavigate it on foot. The facility sprawls across the riverfront, the size of a shopping mall. Its chillers, humming like a Dreamliner on takeoff, cast waves of heat across the Columbia in an effort to keep the thousands of servers inside from melting. Across the street, a silent, cold blast furnace looms in stark contrast. It’s an idled aluminum smelter. Both industries—aluminum and information—came to this spot for the same reason: cheap electricity from the government-built dam. The smelter used about 85 megawatts. Based on projected square footage, the Google data center can be expected to use about 100—enough to power a small city. I scramble onto a dirt hill and gaze at the data center’s private substation—two 100-megawatt transformers—until a guard dog chases me away.
The federal government began damming the Columbia in the 1930s, but things really got going in the forties. With the advent of World War II, Uncle Sam needed aluminum—more than Alcoa, a near-monopoly up until then—could make. The War Production Board hired Alcoa to help Uncle Sam build twenty new aluminum plants between 1941 and 1943. Many were sited near government-built dams, especially on the Columbia River. In fact, beefing up aluminum production was used as a reason to build new electricity-producing dams.
The result—especially after the war, when the government sold off its wartime plants to Alcoa competitors—was a glut of aluminum. Even as Cold War fears were used to justify building more dams, the aluminum industry scrambled to find new, peacetime uses for its product. The tail of production began to wag the dog of demand: Alcoa and their new competitors began inventing scads of new uses for aluminum: toys, boats, appliances, golf clubs, cookware. But the real breakthrough was the aluminum can. John D. Harper, Alcoa’s young and innovative president, boldly led the company into the production of rigid container sheet for can companies, gambling that the disposable market could use up his excess aluminum. The first aluminum beverage can was introduced in 1958. The aluminum industry never looked back.
In 1960, the year Keep America Beautiful and the Ad Council joined forces, containers and packaging composed just over 7 percent of the U.S. aluminum market. But Harper’s gamble paid off. Within twenty years, aluminum containers would produce more revenue for Alcoa than its second-, third-, and fourth-largest markets combined. John D. Harper spent much of that time as a member of the Ad Council’s Industry Advisory Committee.
WE’VE COME a long way from our crying Indian. Or have we? The day the waters rose at Celilo Falls, the town’s tribal elders looked on in tears. It wasn’t the first such event. In June of 1940, Colville, Tulalip, Blackfoot, Nez Perce, Yakima, Flathead, and Coeur d’Alene Indians gathered at Kettle Falls, another beloved trading and fishing spot that was soon to be ninety feet beneath the reservoir of Grand Coulee Dam. For three days, elders spoke, fishermen recalled fantastic salmon runs, children played games, and the community mourned the end of an ancient way of life. It was called the “ceremony of tears.” When the reservoir was filled, more than two thousand Indians were displaced from their homes.
The federal government built thirteen more Columbia River basin dams in the 1950s, another seven in the 1960s, and six in the 1970s. Many destroyed Native American towns and fishing sites. But this didn’t just happen in the Pacific Northwest. It went on all across America. After World War II, the Bureau of Reclamation and the Army Corps of Engineers built scores of dams, a shocking number of them on tribal land. The result was always misery for Native Americans. Kinzua Dam on Seneca land in Pennsylvania. The Moses-Saunders Power Dam on Mohawk land in New York. Tellico Dam, drowning Cherokee towns in Tennessee. Oahe, Fort Randall, and Big Bend Dams inundating Sioux land in South Dakota. The larger, hydroelectric dams quickly attracted power-intensive industries, often aluminum plants.
In 1948, a deal was reached for the Three Affiliated Tribes (Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara) in North Dakota to sell thousands of acres—at thirty-three dollars each—to the federal government for its new Garrison Dam. Three Tribes’ Council Chairman George Gillette reluctantly went to Washington to sign the contract. In a widely published picture of the event, the secretary of the interior signs the document, his face impassive. Flanking him, several suited bureaucrats look anywhere but at George Gillette, rakishly handsome in his double-breasted, pinstriped suit. Gillette has taken off his glasses, put his face in one hand, and begun to weep.
Ironically, perhaps unwittingly, the Ad Council and Keep America Beautiful got it right. The crying Indian hints at the root cause of the problem he mourns: it’s not just roadside trash. It’s the culture of consumption that created that trash—with government subsidized power—and sold it to the public as the American Dream, when in fact it was that very dream’s death. Iron Eyes Cody may have wept on cue, but George Gillette wept for the land.
IS THE CRYING INDIAN the root of environmentalism, as Wikipedia would have it? Or is he its sole mourner, weeping its silent dirge? In the thirty years following his debut, Americans landfilled or incinerated more than a trillion aluminum cans—enough to encircle the Earth 3,048 times.
I watch the crying Indian again on YouTube. Here’s the genius of it: the ad appeals to a vague feeling of national guilt that—following in a long iconic tradition—is associated with Native Americans. What we’ve done to this land is not right, and the Indians know it, because we did it to them, too. As the Indian contemplates the trashed landscape and car-choked freeway, a dark possibility opens up: our way of life is destructive. The cars, the pollution, the factories: it’s not, despite what we’ve been told, the best of all possible worlds. Something must change. And then that bag of trash arcs out the window and explodes like a revelation at his feet. Oh, we think, relaxing, so that’s it. That’s what we’ve done wrong. We can stop doing that. It’s the same move by which we’re told to buy local food—that buying local will make things change—as if the government were not providing farm subsidies to agribusiness and highway subsidies to the trucking industry and zoning incentives to chain stores, thus shifting the costs of bad environmental choices invisibly to the taxpayer and making “buy local”—the best choice—often the most difficult and expensive one. How can we expect individual choice to right the wrongs of collective decisions?
Tracing the crying Indian to his real-life counterpart reminds us to focus not just on symptoms, but on the system. Keep America Beautiful and the Ad Council planted the seeds of a feel-good “shop for change” form of environmentalism that urges us to forgo regulation in favor of personal choice. We can do it! But in a world where federal funds continue to subsidize energy squandering, individual action is important, but it’s not enough. In today’s disposable market, aluminum is being edged out by resource-intensive plastics that are even harder to recycle. The aluminum industry has gone abroad in search of cheaper power, and their subsidized hydropower is being taken over by energy-guzzling data centers. Microsoft, Ask.com, and Yahoo have all joined Google on the harnessed Columbia’s banks.
It’s another elegant circle: Whenever you want to see “the best PSA ever made,” you can go to YouTube and search for “crying Indian.” Bytes will stream to your computer from a shiny digital factory, perhaps one sitting on the Columbia. The ancestral fishing grounds mourned by crying Indians will thus generate the electricity that activates Iron Eyes Cody’s tear, falling once more for a trashed world.
* In more recent years, Burson-Marsteller performed crisis management for Union Carbide after the Bhopal disaster, for reactor builders Babcock & Wilcox after Three Mile Island, for British Petroleum after their Torrey Canyon oil spill, for Dow-Corning after silicone-breast-implant lawsuits, and for the government of Saudi Arabia after thirteen of its citizens helped carry out the attacks of September 11. One of Burson-Marsteller’s key accomplishments was helping to invent the concept of astroturf. Corporate-sponsored groups designed to look grassroots, astroturf organizations are able to reach the media, and in many cases, the hearts of the public, in ways that corporate flaks never could. Their particular specialty was astroturf environmental groups: they helped spawn the Coalition for Clean and Renewable Energy, bankrolled by Hydro Quebec; the Foundation for Clean Air Progress, a consortium of energy, industry, and agricultural companies formed to fight clean air legislation; and the American Energy Alliance, which lobbied to defeat President Bill Clinton’s proposed Btu tax. Until his April 2008 ouster, Burson-Marsteller CEO Mark Penn was also a chief strategist for the Hillary Clinton presidential campaign.