Except they weren’t: Iron Eyes Cody

Except they weren’t: An occasional series about people and things which are Not What They Seem

A middle-aged Iron Eyes Cody, dressed in a traditional Native American cloak and with a feather on his head, in an undated publicity photoTo three generations of movie fans, Iron Eyes Cody was THE Hollywood Indian. He was born in Oklahoma in 1904 to a Cherokee father and a Cree mother. He spent his youth performing in traveling Wild West shows, where he taught himself the sign languages of other Nations. In 1924, he moved to California, and within two years was appearing as an uncredited extra in Hollywood.

His career took off from there, and he eventually appeared in more than 200 films and TV series, particularly Westerns. He played in films with A-list actors like John Wayne (The Big Trail in 1930) and Steve McQueen (A Man Called Horse in 1970). But his most famous role came at age 65 in a Public Service Announcement TV commercial that was an early advocate for environmental conservation movement. It’s horribly dated now, but it had a real impact on changing public attitudes:

Cody wrote an autobiography, died in 1999 at age 94, and is buried in the “cemetery of the stars,” Hollywood Forever Cemetery. He is in the mausoleum with his beloved wife Bertha, not far from stars like Victor Fleming, James Garner, and Marilyn Monroe.

Over a career spanning nearly 70 years, Iron Eyes Cody’s career perfectly traced America’s changing attitudes toward the people known first as Indians, then as American Indians, then as Native Americans — all the while staying true to his heritage as a Native American.

Except he wasn’t.

He was born as Espera Oscar de Corti in small-town Louisiana, the son of two immigrants from Sicily who ran the town grocery store. He moved to California at 19, where he used his dark skin, talent for telling a good story, and genuine acting talent to score a long and successful career as an actor.

The truth began to come out in 1996, when his half-sister gave an interview to the New Orleans Times-Picayune newspaper. de Corti/Cody denied the rumor, but it was officially confirmed after his death.

What do we make of his story? Was this the worst kind of cultural appropriation, the story of a white man literally taking on a fake Native American identity? Was it a well-meaning fib that had a happy ending and actually did some good? Did it start out for convenience, but then eventually de Corti managed to convince himself he really was Cody?

If it helps: he married a for-reals Native American woman, adopted two children from reservations in his fake-home state of Oklahoma, and spent much of his life advocating and fundraising for Native-led charities and causes.

Questions like these are why I find these except-they-weren’t stories so fascinating.

What do you think?

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