American Indian Environmental Relations
Contribution to Book
A Companion to American Environmental History
Douglas Cazaux Sackman
It's an iconic image. A lone Indian paddles a birch bark canoe downstream. The churning river passes through lush forestland and then empties into open water. Pounding drums give way to strings, woodwinds, and horns as the canoe bumps against floating trash and the landscape morphs into a steaming industrial landscape of smokestacks and rusting steel beneath a blood-red sky. The music reaches a hammering orchestral crescendo then fades as the canoe lands on a litter-strewn beach. The camera follows the lone Indian on to the side of a freeway teeming with cars. The music slowly rises as the narrator intones, "Some people have a deep abiding respect for the natural beauty that was once this country, and some people don't." A passenger flings a bag of garbage out a car window; it explodes in front of the Indian, splattering his beaded moccasins. The Indian looks up and slowly turns towards us as the camera zooms in on a single tear running down his cheek. The music swells to a sustained note as the narrator concludes, "People start pollution; people can stop it." The music dies, the screen fades to black, and the logos for the Ad Council and Keep America Beautiful campaign appear.
It all happened in 60 seconds, in an ephemeral television Public Service Announcement (PSA) launched on Earth Day 1971, but that final image - the "Crying Indian" - persists in our cultural memory forty years later.
“American Indian Environmental Relations,” (2010) in: A Companion to American Environmental History, edited by Douglas Cazaux Sackman,Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, pp. 191-213.