Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Crying Indian

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 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.

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.

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.

So for Jen, this is my version of a Generation X story, with a Native twist.

By the way, you can check out this version of the crying Indian ad. Here’s another one.


jenX said...

I would love to reprint this as a guest post on my blog with your permission! This is fantastic. I know it will mean a lot to Robert when he reads it.

Barry Moses (Sulustu) said...

Of course, Jen. You may post this blog as you like.

jenX said...

Hey Barry! can you send me a 2-3 sentence bio that I can post along with your guest blog!? I'd like to put this up on Saturday! Thank you!

Barry Moses (Sulustu) said...

Oh Jen, now you're really challenging me. ;)

How about you take a few lines from my blog bio; whatever you feel is the most important information for your vieweres?

Sorry to pass the buck; I just hate talking about myself that way.

Krystal said...

I can't imagine what it must have been like for you. I know that my grandmother only mentioned her Native American side ONCE to me.

Barry Moses (Sulustu) said...

Krystal, my experiences have taught me to understand and appreciate the world. I wouldn't take any of it back.


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