I did not know this (my weekly perusal of my old neighborhood weekly took me there). The Native American with the tear rolling down his cheek in the “Keep America Beautiful” ads of my yute, Iron Eyes Cody, was actually an Italian-American (must be a Roman Catholic connection somewhere):
Long before his fame in the 1970s, Iron Eyes Cody had carved out a niche for himself in Hollywood’s Western film community as “the noble Indian.” With his striking, “indigenous” looks, he perfectly fit the bill for what producers were looking for — and his story correlated. Until the late 1990s, Iron Eyes’ personal history (provided solely by himself) was that he’d descended from a Cherokee father and a Cree mother, and had been born under the name “Little Eagle.” An old archived article filed in the Glendale Special Collections library elaborates on his account:
“Iron Eyes learned much of his Indian lore in the days when, as a youth, he toured the country with his father, Thomas Long Plume, in a wild west show. During his travels, he taught himself the sign language of other tribes of Indians.”
From 1930 to the late 1980s, Iron Eyes starred in a variety of Western films alongside the likes of John Wayne, Steve McQueen, and Ronald Reagan. Clad in headdresses and traditional garb, he portrayed Crazy Horse in Sitting Bull (1954), galloped through the plains in The Great Sioux Massacre (1965), and appeared in over 100 television programs. When major motion picture houses needed to verify the authenticity of tribal dances and attire, Iron Eyes was brought in as a consultant. He even provided the “ancestral chanting” on Joni Mitchell’s 1988 album, Chalk Mark in a Rainstorm.
By all accounts, he was Hollywood’s — and America’s — favorite Native American.
But several (real) Native American actors soon came to doubt Iron Eyes’ authenticity. Jay Silverheels, the Indian actor who played “Tonto” in The Lone Ranger, pointed out inaccuracies in Iron Eyes’ story; Running Deer, a Native American stuntman, agreed that there was something strangely off-putting about the man’s heritage. It wasn’t until years later that these doubts were affirmed.
The Italian Cherokee
In 1996, a journalist with The New Orleans Times-Picayune ventured to Gueydan, Louisiana, the small town Iron Eyes had allegedly grown up in, and sought out his heritage. Here, it was revealed that “America’s favorite Indian” was actually a second-generation Italian.
“He just left,” recalled his sister, Mae Abshire Duhon, “and the next thing we heard was that he had turned Indian.”
At first, residents of Gueydan were reticent to reveal Iron Eyes’ true story — simply because they were proud he’d hailed from there, and didn’t want his image tarnished. Hollywood, along with the ad agencies that had profited from his image, was wary to accept the man’s tale as fabricated. The story didn’t hit the newswires and was slow to gain steam, but The Crying Indian’s cover was eventually blown.
Iron Eyes Cody, or “Espera Oscar de Corti,” was born in a rural southwestern Louisiana town on April 3, 1904, the second of four children. His parents, Antonio de Corti and Francesca Salpietra had both emigrated from Sicily, Italy just a few years prior.
Five years later, Antonio abandoned the family and left for Texas, taking with him Oscar and his two brothers. It was here, in the windswept deserts, that Oscar was exposed to Western films, and developed an affinity for Native American culture. In 1919, film producers visited the area to shoot a silent film, “Back to God’s Country;” Oscar was cast as a Native American child. The experience impacted him greatly, and, following his father’s death in 1924, he migrated to California to forge a career as an actor.
Imagine if Vanity Fair had dedicated a cover and related interview to Oscar de Corti in 1996. Imagine if transethnicity were a progressive cause.
Wait. Rachel Dolezal blocked that path to human freedom. Darn.