I touched on this briefly with my last post, but it has taken a couple of weeks to return to the story of “The Crying Indian”. This post is both about the figure I created from found Styrofoam and the true story about one of the most successful Public Service Announcements of all time. A few months back, I accepted the invitation of Bob Hill to show some of my river creations at his Hidden Hill Nursery and Sculpture Garden in Utica, Indiana which is just across the river from my home in Louisville, KY. After the high water we had in late winter and early spring, I had the opportunity and collected several large pieces of Styrofoam off of the riverbank with the intentions of making a few large figures that I could use for the Hidden Hill show. I was successful in accomplishing this goal and the first figure I made was to become the piece I call “The Crying Indian”.
I really don’t have a proper studio. Just a basement at home that I hoard all the materials that I bring home from the river and the few finished works that I keep. I really do prefer working outdoors at the Falls of the Ohio where I can work relatively quickly. On occasion, I have a need to create work that is a little more formal or ambitious and requires more time to put together. With a deadline approaching for a May 21 opening and weather unpredictable…I set about creating what I could in this cramped space. There are some advantages like being able to listen to music or moving the laundry along and snacks are just a short staircase away. Sitting at the foot of those basement steps, I weighed my options and introduced elements that may or may not become a part of the finished work. The large chunks of Styrofoam that I had brought home from this year’s flooding were outside leaning against my house. I selected the third largest piece and brought it into the basement. It was time to go to work.
Going into this sculpture, I knew that I wanted to keep it fairly “classical” meaning that most of the elements I used were white in color in “imitation” of marble statuary. I chose a river-polished hunk of Styrofoam for a potential head that felt somewhat in proportion to the figure I envisioned. I sifted through bags and boxes of river collections and chose two hollow, plastic, and crushed fake golf balls for eyes. The nose is a piece of polystyrene that is cone-shaped. The mouth is a plastic and foam element from an old football helmet and the ears are pieces of Styrofoam. The element that would become “the feather” in the Indian’s headdress was a broken plastic kayak? paddle that I had recently found and thought would look great in this context. I would later use glacier and river worn quartz pebbles for the tears, but this was one of the last elements I introduced into this piece. The rest of the work would be Falls of the Ohio driftwood and plastic elements collected in the park.
As I’m working on this, I’m also having an internal conversation with myself. Talking to my materials I silently ask, “What do you want to be?” I’ll pose questions and trust my subconscious to help me out by providing a few clues that become ideas that can be elaborated upon. In this case, I was remembering that great Public Service Announcement from 1971 that is known as “The Crying Indian”. I was wondering why there weren’t similar ads on television now decrying pollution and litter and extolling the public to do what they can do to help which is also the right thing to do? What seems to rule the air waves now in the way of public service has more to do with finding cures for cancer and other maladies that afflict us…and that is important too. Another little voice within me also feels that many of these physiological problems we endure will find their root causes in an increasingly degraded and contaminated environment. For old times sake I looked up that original Crying Indian ad that was sponsored from the Keep America Beautiful folks and found it as effective as I had remembered it. During my search, I clicked on a few other stories related to the Crying Indian and that’s when my jaw dropped in amazement.
The first big surprise is a story full of ironies beginning with the actor playing the”Crying Indian”…he was not a Native American in the first place. “Iron Eyes Cody”, America’s favorite movie and television Indian was born Espera Oscar de Corti in Gueydon, Louisiana in 1904. He was actually a second generation Italian American. He had a rough upbringing and when he was a child he left with his father for the American West. It was out there that he first experienced indigenous cultures as well as the entertainment industry where he was to find life-long employment. His first role, playing a Native American child happened in 1919 in a silent film entitled “Back to God’s Country”. Iron Eyes Cody’s film and television career ultimately spanned the 1930’s to the 1980’s. He claimed to be of Cherokee and Cree descent, but he needed his braided wig to become at least the image of an Indian. Apparently, he never quite confessed to his deception and even lived to the ripe old age of 94. Although Iron Eyes Cody was not a real Native American, he seems to have lived his life otherwise respecting the indigenous cultures. He married a Native American woman and they adopted two Native children…one of whom became one of the best Native American musicians. Perhaps it was the times, but I have to believe that if this ad were to be remade today that the public would insist that the Indian be at least genuine.
I didn’t feel that this figure was complete without photographing it in the context of the Falls of the Ohio where I originally found the materials that comprise it. The addition of the white jugs became important not only because I have recently been doing a lot of outdoor assemblages using plastic containers, but returning to the fascinating story of “The Crying Indian”. As was mentioned, this PSA was sponsored by Keep American Beautiful and the Advertising Council did the ad for free as a way of stimulating business interests in our country. The Ad Council also created Smokey the Bear, McGruff the Crime Dog, this is your brain on drugs with the egg frying in the pan, buckle up for safety which was an early seat belt public service announcement and many more. As for the Keep America Beautiful folks….well, they actually represented an organization consisting of companies that produced bottles and containers of all kinds which make up a huge part of the litter you see everywhere but in the PSA crafted for them. The Crying Indian ad is now considered a classic case of green-washing. What occurred with this PSA was to put the responsibility for litter square on the backs of consumers and deflected any blame away from the manufacturers that produce these containers in the first place. Once upon a time, containers were returned to their point of origin to be cleaned and reused, but there was a lot less trouble and more money to be made in convincing the public that single use containers were the way to go. We are still in that place forty years later. You can never underestimate the power of ad agencies to understand human behavior and psychology and use it against us to further the goals of their clients. A good part of the shame people felt upon seeing trash being thrown at the feet of Iron Eyes Cody had to do with the subtle guilt that many people feel for displacing and persecuting the original inhabitants of this land. That added ingredient helped make this one of the most successful public service announcements ever made.
Here are a few images of the finished piece in place at Hidden Hill Nursery and Sculpture Garden. It looks great where it’s at and I will do another story soon that will include the other sculptures I made for this occasion. Some of them turned out very well, although they don’t quite have the back story that the figure does. Hidden Hill is a special and beautiful place and I look forward to sharing more pictures with you.
I used Ginger Brand’s great article entitled, “The Crying Indian” that originally appeared in the November 2008 issue of Orion Magazine for much of the information included in this post. Brand really goes much farther than I could go here and I highly recommend this read. Here is a link to that story…https://orionmagazine.org/the-crying-indian/ Another good source of information came from Priceonomics and the link to that story is http://priceonomics.com/the-true-story-of-the-crying-indian/ And, if you want to see the original one minute long public service announcement, it is available on YouTube and at the end of this post. Until next time…