IF YOU WATCHED television at any point in the seventies, you saw him: America’s most famous Indian. Star of perhaps the best-known public service announcement ever, he was a black-braided, buckskinned, cigar-store native come to life, complete with single feather and stoic frown. In the spot’s original version, launched by Keep America Beautiful on Earth Day 1971, he paddles his canoe down a pristine river to booming drumbeats. He glides past flotsam and jetsam. The music grows bombastic, wailing up a movie-soundtrack build. He rows into a city harbor: ship, crane, a scrim of smog. The Indian pulls his boat onto a bank strewn with litter and gazes upon a freeway.
“Some people have a deep, abiding respect for the natural beauty that was once this country,” intones a basso profundo voice [actor William Conrad*], “and some people don’t.” On those words, someone flings a bag of trash from a passing car. It scatters at the Indian’s feet. He looks into the camera for the money shot. A single tear rolls down his cheek.
“People start pollution. People can stop it,” declares the narrator.
Rewind. Replay. Thanks to YouTube, you can watch this ad over and over, framed by excited viewer comments: “A classic!!” “Very powerful.” “Best PSA ever made.” Most YouTubers agree with the trade journal Ad Age, which included the campaign in the century’s top hundred. Some netizens even claim the ad motivated them to pick up trash or chide litterers. The Advertising Educational Foundation declares the spot “synonymous with environmental concern.” Wikipedia says it “has been widely credited with inspiring America’s fledgling environmental movement.” The crying Indian wept for our sins, and from his tears sprang forth a new Green Age.
Race pretty much overrules everything else these days on who? whom? grounds, even petty nonsense like trashing a natural wonder.
* William Conrad was the portly star of the detective show "Cannon" (1971-1976). I went to elementary school with his kid (who liked to unexpectedly knock people down from behind during recess). I called him Cannonball.