Those were the days when we had five TV stations — yes, children, we grew up with five TV stations and no streaming services and no internet, and we somehow managed to survive. We even lived without cellphones or TikTok or video games. We compensated by playing outside.
Anyway, in the age of five TV stations, “The Crying Indian” became a part of our childhood. And I can’t help but think it should be rejuvenated.
Before we go further, a little explanation for those who have never been so deprived as to have only five TV stations:
“The Crying Indian” was a public-service announcement from Keep America Beautiful, an organization dedicated to reducing litter in the United States. It showed a man in Native American garb rowing a canoe through pollution-fouled waters, past factories spewing gasses into the air, and arriving on a beach covered with litter. He then stands by a roadside as somebody in a passing car throws litter out the window, the garbage landing at the Native American’s feet. He turns to the camera, a single tear falling down his cheek.
The narration, in its entirety: “Some people have a deep, abiding respect for the natural beauty that was once this country … and some people don’t. People start pollution, people can stop it.”
The commercial launched in 1971, during the nascent environmental movement. This was shortly after the Environmental Protection Agency was created, signed into law by President Richard Nixon (Sidebar No. 1: Can you imagine a Republican president these days supporting environmental protections?) And it arrived as the nation was reckoning with decades of environmental degradation.
If you don’t believe that clean water and clean air can be endangered, look up the EPA’s Documerica project.
The commercial was important on several fronts. For one, it helped establish the narrative of Native Americans as stewards of the environment. After decades of Hollywood portraying them as savages deserving to be colonized by sophisticated white settlers, this message was subtle but important. (Sidebar No. 2: Iron Eyes Cody, the actor in the commercial, had a long Hollywood career playing Native Americans. He claimed he was Native American, but was of Italian parentage. Today, that would be scandalous.)
Anyway, the most important facet of the commercial was the impact it had on the children of the 1970s. We grew up thinking that throwing litter out of a car would make a Native American cry. Well, maybe not, but we did learn that it was important to have a deep, abiding respect for the natural beauty that once was this country, and that people can stop pollution.
All of which comes to mind when we view our roadsides these days; fewer people seem to have respect for our landscape. This might be a misperception fueled by a lack of public cleanup during the pandemic. Or it might be an accurate perception that more people are selfishly tossing garbage out of cars. Whatever the reason, it is a reminder of the power of a long-ago commercial. (Sidebar No. 3: Keep America Beautiful apparently is a front for the bottle and can industry, opposing recycling measures and deposits on containers).
“The Crying Indian” wasn’t on the radio guy’s list of the “most influential commercials of all time.” That tells us a lot about the accuracy of the list, because 50 years later that ad remains unforgettable.