Listen Live

It is arguably the most famous tear in television history.

>> Read more trending news

The rights to the 1971 anti-pollution public service announcement, featuring Iron Eyes Cody shedding a solitary bitter tear after trash is thrown at his feet from a passing car, has been retired by the Native American advocacy group that obtained the rights to it on Thursday, The Associated Press reported.

Keep America Beautiful announced that it had transferred ownership of the commercial’s rights to the National Congress of American Indians, the NCAI said on its website.

The commercial, which debuted on Earth Day in 1971, has been referenced through the years on shows like “The Simpsons” and “South Park” and became the subject of internet memes, the AP reported. But the NCAI said the PSA has always been inappropriate.

“The advertisement, which became synonymous with furthering environmental protection and awareness in popular culture at the time of its creation, was later known for featuring imagery that stereotyped American Indian and Alaska Native people and misappropriated Native culture,” the organization wrote on its website.

The man who played the “Crying Indian” was allegedly not even a Native American, although he played the role in scores of movies and television series during his career and insisted that he was an indigenous citizen.

His heritage was questioned in 1996 by The New Orleans Times-Picayune. The newspaper reported, based on an interview with a half-sister and a baptismal record, that Iron Eyes Cody was a second-generation Italian-American from Louisiana, The New York Times reported. He claimed to have Cherokee heritage through his father, the AP reported.

Iron Eyes Cody was born Espera “Oscar” de Corti and died in Los Angeles on Jan. 4, 1997, reported. He was 94.

He appeared in more than 100 movies, including ‘’Sitting Bull,’’ ‘’Paleface’’ and ‘’A Man Called Horse,” the Times reported. Sometimes his roles were listed in the credits simply as Indian or Indian Chief, according to the newspaper. He made guest appearances on television programs like ‘’Bonanza,’’ ‘’Gunsmoke’’ and “Rawhide.’’ Cody also was a technical adviser on Native American matters on film sets, according to the AP.

But he was remembered for paddling in a canoe and wearing buckskins as smokestacks and a polluted environment rose around him.

“It was more than advertising,” Roger Powers, who was president of Keep America Beautiful in 1970, told the AP in 1997. “What we found — it was a stroke of luck — was a man who lived it and believed in it.”

Cody reprised his role in follow-up PSAs for Keep America Beautiful in 1975 and in a revamped version in 1996, the Times reported.

Jennifer J. Folsom, a journalism and media communication professor at Colorado State University and a citizen of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma, remembers watching the public service announcement as a child.

“At that point, every single person who showed up with braids and buckskins, on TV or anywhere in the movies, I glommed on to that because it was such a rare thing to see,” Folsom, whose areas of study include Native American pop culture, told the AP. “I did see how people littered, and I did see how the creeks and the rivers were getting polluted.”

Folsom called Keep America Beautiful’s decision an “appropriate move.”

The NCAI said it was happy to retire the longtime PSA.

“NCAI is proud to assume the role of monitoring the use of this advertisement and ensure it is only used for historical context; this advertisement was inappropriate then and remains inappropriate today,” NCAI Executive Director Larry Wright Jr. said in a statement. “NCAI looks forward to putting this advertisement to bed for good.”