Saturday, November 7, 2015

Lost in a Cultural Labyrinth

"HOW Indian Sign Talk in Pictures" by Iron Eyes Cody
Not long ago a friend and I stumbled upon Kazoo Books, in Kalamazoo Michigan.

Kazoo Books is a book store carrying new and used books.  It is delightfully placed in a former house, and fills the space from the "choose what you want and we'll make you a good deal" clearance books in the attic to the maze-like floor to ceiling  selections in the basement and on every floor in between.

It was in the basement that I stumbled upon a 1952 booklet entitled "How:  Indian Sign Talk in Pictures", written by Iron Eyes Cody and illustrated by famed western artist Clarence Ellsworth (1).

 I grew up watching Iron Eyes Cody on TV.  He was in countless western movies and was the famed "Crying Indian" in the 1970's PSA (Public Service Announcement) commercials.

In the 1970's he was  put forth as an icon of the conservation movement as well as a spokesperson for Native American culture.

 At the time I had no reason to doubt that he was exactly who he said he was.

As I grew older, however, I found Iron Eyes Cody was a bit of an enigma.   For example, this book describes him as being from the Cherokee tribe, born in Texas.

A website dedicated to him describes him as being from the Cree-Cherokee tribes, born on April  3rd, 1904 in Oklahoma (6).

Meanwhile, a New York Times biography of him claims he was born  on April 14th, 1904 in Oklahoma (2)

Later investigations detailed on countless websites, however, point to some deeper truths/mistruths about Iron Eyes.

"Iron Eyes Cody" was actually born in Louisiana as  Espera de Corti, the son of Italian immigrants from Sicily (3,4).   According to Snopes, Espera's father changed his last name from "de Corti"to "Corti",  and then after his death his sons further altered their name  to "Cody".   At this point Espera began identifying as Native American (3).

It is here that  ethics and the truth become muddled.  While it seems Iron Eyes was certainly not Native American from birth, he dedicated his adult life to learning about Native American life,  living as Native American and championing Native American causes and culture (2).  

I dithered back and forth about buying this booklet.  Finally my friend bought  it for me.  As I held it and paged through it, I felt a strange mixture of indignation and confusion as well as a certain amount of twisted nostalgia from a childhood spent having Iron Eyes Cody  being one of the primary television and movie depictions of Native Americans available to me that seemed to be portrayed in anything resembling a positive light.

My feelings about Iron Eyes Cody are further confused by the fact that my knowledge of my own Native American ancestry was blurred--I spent my  childhood not knowing I was part Yurok (a Northern California tribe). My teenage years were spent feeling too nervous to ask the hard questions and my adulthood  has been filled with regret now that the very people I want most to talk to are long gone.

So who was Iron Eyes Cody?  An Italian-American flim-flam man, pretending to be Native American for the sake of success?  Or was he a man so moved by the real story of the characters he depicted  that he did all he could to be as Native American as possible by supporting Native American causes and educating others?

I don't know.  This booklet does contain what could be seen as viable information about Native American Sign Language--a now endangered language that was used by the Plains tribes (7).

The question  I ask myself is if there is a similar viability in the story of the man who wrote it.

How should we understand and remember Iron Eyes Cody?

I have not yet decided.

However, from his obituary in the LA Times newspaper, it would seem his family made sure he died  the person he tried so hard to become--not Espera de Corti, but Iron Eyes Cody.   As the LA Times staff writer of his obituary noted at the beginning of Iron Eyes' obituary:

"Iron Eyes Cody, the veteran Native American actor and humanitarian whose Hollywood career stretched back to the earliest big-screen westerns but who achieved perhaps his greatest success in a famous anti-pollution ad on the small screen, died Monday at his home in Los Angeles. He was 94." (5)

*All photos property of Christina Moorehead, sourced from "How: Indian Sign Talk in Pictures". Iron Eyes Cody. Homer H. Boelter Lithography. Hollywood, CA. 1952. 








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