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A Gen-Xer Reflects on the Crying Indian

By Barry Moses

Fellow blogger JenX defines my generation as the collection of “former latchkey kids born between 1961-81, at the intersection of faith and culture.” Her blog explores the cultural subtleties of Generation X with unusual passion and insight; unusual because many of us hardly even recognize ourselves as a coherent, identifiable group. In our youth, we often experienced some degree of an identity crisis, but then again, perhaps our very struggle for identity IS one of the defining characteristics of our generation.

Inspired by Jen’s blog, I’ve begun to consider my own place in this phenomenon called Generation X.

Crying Indian

Just the other day, I was reminded of an iconic image from our generation. Almost anyone who grew up in the 1970s will remember the crying Indian from the Keep America Beautiful ads. A Native American man dressed in buckskin and a single feather overlooks a polluted cityscape choked with cars, trash, and smog while a teardrop rolls down his cheek. The narrator intones with stoic solemnity, “People start pollution. People can stop it.”

The problem with the ad is that neither the Indian nor the teardrop were real. The teardrop was glycerin and the Indian was really an Italian-American who took the name Iron Eyes Cody. His real name was Espera Oscar DeCorti. Ginger Strand wrote a much more thorough and thought-provoking account of the true history behind the ad.

And yet this image, though largely false, still managed to stir up strong feelings for many people. It invoked a sense of the idyllic, mythic past of our nation and inspired many to express greater concern for the environment.

Native American Racism

On a personal level, the crying Indian creates a sense of irony, forever trapped between negative and idealized stereotypes. As a young child in the 1970s, I was old enough to remember the lingering remnants of a deeply racist society. I still remember the difficulty my parents faced when trying to rent a house.

In those days, people made little attempt to conceal their racist attitudes and overtly refused us housing simply for being Indian. I can still hear the insults in my mind and feel the sting of rejection. And still the 1970s produced a change in racial attitudes. Suddenly the popular culture turned, and being Indian became something to admire, but not necessarily for all the right reasons. One moment we were despised, and the next moment we were loved for being the “noble savages” of someone’s imagination. Imagine my confusion as a little boy when my ethnic identity was simultaneously hated and treated as an idealized myth. Both versions of popular mythology tend to isolate the human beings behind the label.

Barry, a member of the Spokane Indian Tribe, holds a Masters degree from Whitworth University. A registered counselor and educational consultant, he is lives with his wife and three children in Spokane, Washington. This post originally appeared on Sulustu and has been reprinted here with the author’s permission.

Gen X Blog Jennifer Chronicles

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  1. Barry Moses (Sulustu)

    Hi Lance, I’m glad you found some insight and meaning in my post. My greatest wish is for our culture to find healing for all people. We have a long way to go, but I have to hold out the possibility for a more equitable and compassionate world.

  2. jenX

    @LANCE The last line of your comment really got me:”how we still treat people…” is it never going to change in a forever kind of way? I guess we can still keep throwing the star fish back in the ocean, huh? “It matters to this one.”

  3. jenX

    @MELINDA – I’m just so struck by what he wrote about the mixed messages! Thanks for sharing. I hope Barry will respond, too.

  4. Melinda

    What a great guest post–beautifully written, poignant, and insightful.

    I grew up in Montana and I saw, first hand, the extreme racism that exists toward Native Americans. It’s shocking. I am half Egyptian–and that was difficult in Montana also–and I always felt a little infinity with the Indians because they, like me, were often discriminated against.

    I live in Boston and San Francisco right now–and most people in those places don’t consider the racism that Native Americans have endured.

    I really enjoyed reading this post.


  5. Barry Moses (Sulustu)

    Hi Jen, thanks for posting this. I’m honored that you thought to include me as a guest blogger.

    To Melinda, your comment makes a lot of sense to me. The more I talk to people, the more I discover the similarities between our experiences. What you say is true; many people just don’t think of Native Americans when they consider the struggle for civil rights.

  6. Lance

    Jen and Barry,
    Yes, that mixed message is what strike me here, too. And especially thinking as to what is it based upon? Any truths of the time? No. Being white, I have a hard time fully understanding just how truly difficult it must have been to any race that was treated unfairly. Yet, the more I know, the more I believe that this was/is true and real pain. Barry, thanks so much for sharing your story. It really does shed more light on how we, as a society, have treated people. And for that matter, how we still treat people…

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