Indigenous appropriation

Iron Eyes Cody portrayed Native American characters in more than 200 films and the famous “Crying Indian” TV ad. Red Thunder Cloud and Jamake Highwater presented themselves as experts on Native American culture. None of them were actually indigenous.

Iron Eyes Cody meets Jimmy Carter in the White House
National Archives and Records Administration, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Happy Thanksgiving to my American readers and anyone else who celebrates the holiday. The other day I was reading about the famous Keep America Beautiful public service advertisement from 1971. The ad was part of an anti-littering campaign. It ended with a driver throwing garbage at the feet of the actor Iron Eyes Cody, who turns to the camera to reveal a single tear. You can watch it here:

Iron Eyes Cody played a Native American in hundreds of films and TV series, from the 1920s through to the 1980s. He played Chief Iron Eyes in the 1948 Bob Hope comedy The Paleface, and Crazy Horse in 1954’s Sitting Bull. For many people, he was the public face of the Native American peoples, and he described himself as having Cherokee ancestry. In 1978 he met President Carter in the White House and shared a traditional war bonnet.

Red Thunder Cloud worked with anthropologist Frank Speck to document the languages and practices of the Catawba. He presented himself as a Native American expert to several different academics, and lived most of his life wearing that mask.

Jamake Highwater claimed Cherokee ancestry from 1969 through to his death in 2001. He wrote dozens of books – fiction and non-fiction – from that Native American identity; he hosted a PBS documentary and acted as consultant for Star Trek: Voyager‘s portrayal of Chakotay.

But here’s The Thing. Iron Eyes Cody was born Espera Oscar de Corti; his parents were from Sicily. Red Thunder Cloud was born Cromwell Ashbie Hawkins West; his parents were African American. Jamake Highwater was born Jackie Marks; his parents both had eastern European Jewish ancestry. All three claimed a fake background – co-opting the identities and stories of others for their own benefit. This type of extreme cultural appropriation is common enough that there’s a word for its perpetrators: Pretendians. And (needless to say), it’s pretty gross.

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