The Crying Indian

Ken Gorrellby Ken Gorrell,
Weirs Times Contributing Writer

In six months voters might decide to “Make America Great Again.” I won’t predict how that will turn out, though I suspect we would be no worse off than after eight years of “Hope and Change.” I certainly prefer the “great again” slogan to that of the other leading candidate, who declares herself “for America” in a way I find slightly threatening.
Well-conceived slogans, tag lines, and images resonate with us. Decades after the fact, people of my generation can easily fill in the blank for “Please don’t squeeze the _______.” We know what the San Francisco treat is, and we know what not to leave home without, even if we don’t carry that card. On the other hand, do you remember the campaign slogan for Lindsay Graham or Martin O’Malley?
Each spring I think about one of the best advertising images of all time. After the snow has receded but before the ferns cover up the mess, I grab a garbage bag and walk up and down the road near my house picking up trash. I remember doing this in the 1970s as part of a Cub Scout pack. To the certainties of death and taxes, I’d add litter. Not twenty-four hours after filling a contractor-grade bag, litter had reappeared, mostly in the form of large cans of cheap beer and hard iced tea. A friend once remarked that he lived a Big Mac away from the nearest McDonald’s; his explanation for all the wrappers strewn along the road near his home. Given my roadside debris, I guess I live a “tall boy” away from a convenience store.
Anyone older than 50 has already figured out the image to which I refer: The Crying Indian. Played by Iron Eyes Cody in a 1971 public service advertising campaign, the image of what we now must call a “Native American” shedding a tear as passengers toss trash out of car windows was produced by the Keep America Beautiful organization. Actor William Conrad narrated the ad, intoning “People start pollution; people can stop it.”
Cody was a Hollywood actor who played Native American roles in movies alongside John Wayne, Steve McQueen, and Richard Harris. And like most things coming out of Tinseltown, the lines between fact and fiction blur: Cody was born Espera Oscar de Corti and was said to be of Italian ancestry. But whether his tribe was Cherokee or Sicilian doesn’t change the fact that his tearful, feather headdressed-image resonated.
Thoughtless people continue to litter our roadways, but 45 years after the Crying Indian, America is a much cleaner place. Environmentalist scaremongers with a financial stake in the game push a false narrative, but the fact is that our air and water quality are much higher now than when I was a child. Water contamination incidents in Merrimack and Flint, MI, make headlines, but we’ve come a long way since the turn of the last century when millions of gallons of untreated sewage and industrial waste poured into our rivers every day, causing outbreaks of typhoid fever and other diseases.
Air pollution has been declining even as we drive more miles in more cars and produce more energy to power our lives. Concentrations of ozone, particulates, lead, and sulfur dioxide have decreased dramatically over the past 50 years. If you don’t want to review statistics, watch old movies to see the difference in air quality.
There’s a scene in 1968’s Bullitt where Steve McQueen’s character Frank Bullitt is being driven to a San Francisco-area motel by Jacqueline Bisset’s Cathy in a Porsche 356 Cabriolet, looking very out-of-place among the huge Chevys and Fords. Watching the movie recently I wondered at how the two characters could carry on a conversation without coughing on the tailpipe emissions from the cars and trucks of the era. Numerous studies show an average 10 percent per year decline in automobile emissions since the 1960s. Industrial emissions have been reduced by even greater amounts.
America today is much cleaner than it was when I was a child. So why do polls show that most Americans – especially children – think pollution has either not improved or gotten worse? It’s not the data; it’s how it’s reported. Environmentalists, lawyers, regulators, and journalists all have a stake in perpetuating a false narrative. Tales of impending disaster sell copy, fund grants, and increase political power. Lies make the better calls to action. Facts are mundane by comparison.
Now, if we could just do something about those litterbugs…