Iron Eyes Cody and Other White Actors Playing Indians that Native Americans Find Amusing

So what exactly do Native Americans find funny about Hollywood’s western films? According to Chris Eyre, director of “Smoke Signals,” the best comedy Hollywood has to offer the Native American community may come in one of its most successful dramatic genres. Part of the fascinating documentary “Reel Injun” is a segment about exactly what Mr. Eyre finds humorous.

“White guys playing native roles? I love it. Because it’s funny.”

Here’s another quote, this one from German philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche: “Not by wrath does one kill, but by laughter.”

The humor may be lost on the vast majority of viewers, but don’t count on it. Somewhere deep inside even those of as inherently open to charges of being a racist as Sen. Scott Brown is the recognition of the xenophobic absurdity of Boris Karloff playing a Hollywood Indian.

Yes, you read that right, Boris Karloff-the elegant Englishman whose cultured voice narrates the story of the Grinch every Christmas-added the ethnic curiosity of playing a Native America in the decidedly non-comedic movie “Unconquered” to a resume already packed with exotic characters. The strange sensation of bubbling comedic sensibility that rises to the surface at the sight of seeing Karloff as Hollywood’s idea of an indigenous tribesman of the North American continent contrasts with the relative easiness with which one accepts the Brit as an actual native of India or a Chinese sleuth.

Far more comical to even those with nary a drop of Native America blood in their system should be the sigh of Chuck Connors as not just any Hollywood Indian, but Hollywood’s ultimate Indian: Geronimo. Chuck Connors was a very popular if rather bland actor of the 1950’s who found his greatest fame on the 1960’s TV show “The Rifleman.” Just in case you aren’t familiar with Connors, let’s put it this way: buying him as a Nazi Gestapo agent would be not big problem. Buying Chuck Connors as the most iconic figure of the Native American world within the Caucasian world? Big problem. Hence, no doubt, that sound of laughter you hear far off in the distance whenever “Geronimo” is caught on TV on one of America’s Indian Reservations.

Of course, that sound could also be the result of channel surfing past Elvis Presley, Audrey Hepburn, Burt Lancaster or Natalie Wood playing a Native America. The laughter is doubtlessly of a different sort whenever the image of Iron Eyes Cody appears on screen.

The comedic constituent associated with Iron Eyes Cody is ideologically complex. Iron Eyes Cody appeared in a number of Native American roles in movies and TV shows over the course of more than 70 years, but is likely remembered most for a public service announcement. Iron Eyes Cody may be more familiar to most of you as the “Crying Indian” who can’t believe how polluted his land has become under the stewardship of the white devils who arrived from the East. There’s only one problem with this image.

The “Crying Indian” is actually from the East himself. The multiple layers of comedic effect that Iron Eyes Cody engenders becomes much clearer when you realize that he was born Espera Oscar de Corti, the first-generation American son of Italian immigrants without a single drop of Native American blood inside him. The sound of Native Americans laughing at the humor of white people playing Indians in Hollywood productions cannot help but sound a little different in the case of old Iron Eyes.

After all, here is another case of a white man stealing a role from them, but with the unexpected introduction of dignity afforded their cause by the rarest of all cases: a white man who wanted to play a Native American not for reasons of exploitation but because of deep-seated respect and admiration.