Italian-American Trapped in a Native American's Body

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.

9 thoughts on “Italian-American Trapped in a Native American's Body

  1. This is almost as good as Italians acting as Mexicans in Clint Eastwood’s “spaghetti western” films.


  2. The crying man ruse was mentioned in an episode of the Sopranos when Columbus Day was going to raise a large demonstration. The episode also included a church getting in the middle of it that didn’t quite exhibit 2K standards.


  3. Kent, I’ve sometimes wondered if Paulie Walnuts–with those silver wings of his–was really more Apache than Sicilian. Could it be?


  4. I would concur that scenes in the Sopranos would be considered such, DGH. I did not find myself envying those who temporarily benefited from such actions.

    Zrim, I wouldn’t tell him that…


  5. DGH, when one is involved in search warrants seizing the contents of computers, one runs the risk of exposure to “the worst form” of evil, even when going along as an innocent accountant on the search and seizure.

    (If you are in direct employment with the police for computer investigations you are guaranteed to be exposed to that stuff continually…. just in case anyone wants to ask this week….)

    My response is it isn’t pleasant, going after bad people means you are exposed to bad things, and that one is certainly not embracing it.

    The less-told story is that when one finds it in their line of work, they HAVE to report it and are considered a witness for potential criminal prosecution. Then one gets to sit there in a lawyer’s boardroom while the content is projected on a huge screen and lawyers argue over whether said material is “posturing” or the real deal. This can go on for a long time. A mistake can’t be made either way with the seriousness of the matter…..


  6. Per his Wiki page, that Italian-guy-who-played-Indians made just 22 films over a period of 60 years (1927-1987), so it’s not exactly like Hollywood was clamoring for his services all the time. Heh.


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