From the Fact or Fiction Department, comes the life of Iron Eyes Cody, best known to most as the teary-eyed Indian in a series of anti-pollution public service announcements in the 1960s and 1970s. His life raises a highly personalized, and very controversial question: are human beings defined by the events accomplished during their lives, or by their actual roots? In Cody’s case, there was an actuality that was markedly different than the publicity surrounding him during his career. It is both intriguing, and, in its way, very Hollywood.
He was born Espera DeCorti, on April 3, 1904 in Gueydan, Louisiana — to Italian immigrants, Antonio DeCorti and Francesca Salpietra. He was the second of four children — his siblings were Joseph William (b. 1902), Victoria Delores (b. 1907), and Frank Henry (b. 1909). He was baptized at Holy Rosary Catholic Church in Kaplan, LA. Known to everyone as “Oscar,” Cody endured the break-up of his family when his father, a small-town grocer, abandoned his wife and children. His mother remarried and bore five more children, eventually relocating to Texas, where his stepfather found work among the oil refineries. Cody, and his brothers Joe and Frank DeCorti, reconciled with their biological father, before setting off for Los Angeles under the shortened last name of Corti. All three brothers eventually tried their hand at acting, but it was only Cody who stuck with it (fashioning the now familiar heritage and history that he was the son of a rodeo performer with Buffalo Bill Cody’s traveling Wild West Show). Cody quickly found work in silent films, making his first film appearance at age 15, as an extra, in Back to God’s Country (1919), and appearing in such silent classics as The Covered Wagon (1923), The Iron Horse (1924), and The Road to Yesterday (1925). He also appeared in the classic pictures Cimarron (1931), Union Pacific (1939), Western Union (1941), The Paleface (1948), Broken Arrow (1950), and Alias Jesse James (1959) — however, he was, cinematically, best remembered for his two roles as Chief Crazy Horse, in Sitting Bull (1954) and The Great Sioux Massacre (1965). He is credited as having appeared, either in major or minor roles, in some 241 Hollywood films, in a career that spanned over 70 years.
He became a consultant on Indian lore and equipment renter to Hollywood filmmakers while appearing in motion pictures, as well as touring with Tim McCoy’s and Buck Jones’ Western shows, and while with the Ringling Brothers & Barnum and Bailey Circus. He also appeared extensively on television; for instance, he was a guest on the popular programs Wagon Train and The Virginian in the 1960s, and was the technical advisor on the Disney production Westward Ho the Wagons (1956). He explained the cultural tradition of painted faces thusly: “The young Indian man has a vision and paints his face accordingly. The different colors symbolize different things. Green is good, red is war, yellow is sun, and blue is for the clouds and the Great Spirit. After a young man has had his vision, he fasts and meditates. Then he takes a sweat bath to purify himself and dances. Then he is a man.” He lived a simple lifestyle, and gave generously all his life to Native American causes, generously giving financially to tribal schools and orphanages, and devoting countless hours to charitable work.
Whatever Cody may have lacked in blood-lines, he certainly made up for it to a great extent in Native American spirit, for although he himself may not have been a Native American, his wife Bertha “Birdie” Parker Cody (whom he married in 1936), and his two adopted children, Robert and Arthur, certainly were. Bertha, whose real name was Yeawas, was the daughter of Dr. Arthur C. Parker, Seneca Indian and famous anthropologist and founder of National Indian Day. Her great, great, great uncle was General Ely S. Parker, the first Indian to become Commissioner of Indian Affairs. She was born on an archeological expedition in New York. Together, Bertha and Iron Eyes served as technical advisors for various westerns, and even hosted a TV show on Native American lore during the 1950s. The two remained married until her death, in 1978.
Though the facts lean towards Cody being of Italian ancestry, there are those who are convinced that the story is false, and that Cody was the son of a Cherokee Indian named Thomas Long Plume, who toured with a Wild West show. The defense continues that, at an early age, Iron Eyes joined his father and, while traveling throughout the United States and Canada, had the opportunity to visit many different Indian tribes. His father’s friends, Two Gun White Calf, a Blackfoot Indian, and Buffalo Man, a Cheyenne Indian, taught Iron Eyes basic sign language, helping him to communicate with the various tribes he visited. It is thru this sign language that he came into contact with many Native American people. According to the Native American defense, at an early age, Iron Eyes was an expert Indian dancer and won many prizes and trophies during his travels with various shows. He was commanded to dance before the King and Queen of England, and toured Australia with the Sydney Royal Agricultural Show. Archery being another one of his specialities, he hunted wild boar and kangaroo with his bow and arrows, and had many interesting adventures with the Bushmen of that country. He won the 40-yard trophy from the Melbourne Centenary Archery Association and the 40-yard trophy from the Coogee Archery Association, while in Australia. Iron Eyes’ “Moosehead Museum” was considered one of the best private Indian collections in the United States.
Cody gained solid national recognition, with the television generation, in the “Pollution: It’s a Crying Shame” TV commercials. The “Keep America Beautiful” campaign was launched in 1971; here, Cody’s impact on viewers’ minds was staggering. Most of us, who have seen the spots, can easily recall his saddened expression as he looks at just-tossed litter, with a tear rolling down his cheek. It is one of the most famous sixty seconds in the history of television.
One of Iron Eyes’ widely known hobbies was photography, and he was rarely seen without his camera. The pictures in his book “Indian Talk-Hand Signals of the American Indians,” published by Naturegraph Publishers in 1970, reprinted in 1992, were taken by him, developed, and printed in his basement dark room. He had photographed many Indian ceremonies where allowed, throughout the United States. He was at the Sun Dance in South Dakota and for many years the Hopi Snake Dance and other ceremonies in Arizona and New Mexico. He served as Master of Ceremony of Grand Council of American Indians in Gary, Indiana, the Confederated Tribes of American Indians in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and for many other Indian pow-wows. Iron Eyes wrote many newspaper and magazine articles on the American Indian.
The City of Los Angeles honored Iron Eyes by presenting him with a colorful resolution plaque, stating all his qualifications and ending with the words: “NOW, THEREFORE, BE IT RESOLVED that the Los Angeles Council, through the adoption of this resolution commends IRON EYES CODY on his accomplishments on behalf of the American Indian and wishes him continued success and happiness.” Adopted March 21, 1969 and signed by all Councilmen. Iron Eyes was an active member on the Board of the Los Angeles Indian Center; The Friends of the Los Angeles Library Association; vice-president of the Little Big Horn American Indian Club; board member and photographer for The Los Angeles Corral of The Westerners, a historical club; a Life Member of the Verdugo Council of the Boy Scouts of America, and Vigil Member of the Spe-Le-Yai Lodge 249 of the Order of the Arrow in Glendale, California. Iron Eyes had remarried in 1992, to a woman identified as Wendy Foote, but the marriage ended in divorce in 1993. For decades, Cody was the annual Indian representative in both the Hollywood Christmas Para
de and the Rose Parade. He lived a full, vital, and lively life.
Iron Eyes Cody died, on January 4, 1999, at the age of 94, and rests in the Abbey of the Psalms in Hollywood Forever Cemetery. His numerous contributions to the entertainment industry, particularly the television genre, were celebrated with a star on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame, at 6655 Hollywood Boulevard. Whatever his ancestry, truly, might have been, his legacy is secure, and his accomplishments undeniable. Regardless of whether he was a Native American, or an Italian American, he generously and enthusiastically shared the Indian culture with a curious and wide-eyed audience, and in so doing, assured that he would, forever, be remembered, fondly, as one of the prime proponents and teachers of the Native American people.