R.I.P. Sacheen Littlefeather

Sacheen Littlefeather, who was booed and jeered after she took the stage at the 1973 Oscars to reject a Best Actor Oscar on behalf of Godfather star Marlon Brando — and call for better treatment of Native Americans – is finally receiving an apology from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

Littlefeather’s short speech, before a global audience of 85 million people, is one of the most dramatic and unforgettable moments in the 94-year history of the Oscars. Littlefeather once told the Globe and Mail that John Wayne, watching backstage as she spoke, was so angry that he “had to be restrained by six security men.”

Former Academy President David Rubin apologized to her in June, and on Monday, the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures announced that it will hold an event called An Evening with Sacheen Littlefeather on September 17, 2022. Littlefeather, who has Apache and Yaqui ancestry, accepted the apology in a statement.

“We Indians are very patient people — it’s only been 50 years! We need to keep our sense of humor about this at all times. It’s our method of survival,” said Littlefeather. “I never thought I’d live to see the day for this program to take place, featuring such wonderful Native performers and Bird Runningwater, a television and film producer who also guided the Sundance Institute’s commitment to Indigenous filmmakers for twenty years through the Institute’s Labs and Sundance Film Festival. This is a dream come true. It is profoundly heartening to see how much has changed since I did not accept the Academy Award 50 years ago. I am so proud of each and every person who will appear on stage.”

Jacqueline Stewart, director and president of the Academy Museum, thanked Bird Runningwater, a producer, and Heather Rae, a  director and producer, “for helping us foster our cherished relationship with Sacheen.”

“We are delighted and humbled that Sacheen has so generously chosen to engage with the museum and Academy to reflect upon her trying experience at the 1973 Academy Awards,” Stewart said. “We hope our event on September 17 offers Sacheen and our audiences a moment of collective healing and a new path forward.”

Sacheen Littlefeather was booed accepting the Oscar for Marlon Brando for his role in The Godfather

Sacheen Littlefeather was booed, jeered and suffered career repercussions for declining, on behalf of Marlon Brando, his Best Actor Oscar for his role in The Godfather, above.

Littlefeather’s speech wasn’t just about Hollywood’s lamentable record of misrepresenting Native Americans: It also brought urgently needed attention to a standoff between federal agents and Native American activists at Wounded Knee, South Dakota, that was underway at the time of the 1973 Oscars. The government had ordered a media blackout, and the activists feared what the government might do when no media witnesses were present.

How Did Marlon Brando and Sacheen Littlefeather Meet?

Curiously, the world-famous actor and Littlefeather first crossed paths when Native American activists took over Alcatraz Island from November 20, 1969 through June 11, 1971. Littlefeather took part in the demonstration, and Brando was one of many celebrities who visited to show support. Brando had previously taken part in other demonstrations for Native American rights.

But Brando and Littlefeather apparently didn’t meet at Alcatraz: The Globe and Mail said they first got in touch when Littlefeather wrote Brando a letter asking if he was truly serious in his commitment to the cause. They finally met in person in Washington, D.C.

Littlefeather has said that on the day before the ceremony, Brando contacted her to ask if she would take the stage and decline his Oscar — assuming her won. Because she didn’t have an evening dress, she wore a traditional dress made of buckskin.

What Happened at the 1973 Oscars and Why It Resonates Today

When Brando’s name was announced, Sacheen Littlefeather, a complete unknown to most of the people watching, took the stage instead of The Godfather and On the Waterfront icon. Presenter Roger Moore offered her the Oscar. She held out her palm to refuse it, and instead told the audience that Brando was declining the award because of “the treatment of Indians today by the film industry…”

Many in the audience interrupted her with jeers and boos. “Excuse me,” she said. Applause soon drowned out the boos, and she continued her statement: “…and on television in movie re-runs, and also with recent happenings at Wounded Knee.”

Although she wasn’t allowed to read a letter that Brando had written about the atrocities against Native Americans, the New York Times printed it after the ceremony. (You can watch her entire speech above.)

Littlefeather later told the Los Angeles Times that the Oscars speech helped end the media blackout at Wounded Knee.

Sacheen Littlefeather was booed and suffered career repercussions after declining the Oscar for Marlon Brando for his role in The Godfather

Sacheen Littlefeather was booed and suffered career repercussions after declining the Oscar for Marlon Brando for his role in The Godfather, above.

What Happened to Sacheen Littlefeather After She Refused Brando’s Oscar?

She was scrutinized for decades after the speech, with some claiming she was an actress, not a Native American. (In fact, she was both.) When she sought acting roles, the industry largely rejected her. She took on a career in health and nutrition.

Rubin’s statement acknowledged and honored Littlefeather’s personal sacrifice.

“As you stood on the Oscars stage in 1973 to not accept the Oscar on behalf of Marlon Brando, in recognition of the misrepresentation and mistreatment of Native American people by the film industry, you made a powerful statement that continues to remind us of the necessity of respect and the importance of human dignity,” Rubin said. “The abuse you endured because of this statement was unwarranted and unjustified. The emotional burden you have lived through and the cost to your own career in our industry are irreparable. For too long the courage you showed has been unacknowledged. For this, we offer both our deepest apologies and our sincere admiration.”

Brando died in 2004.

Further Details

We discussed the story of Marlon Brando, Sacheen Littlefeather and John Wayne in a 201p episode of the Shoot This Now podcast, which, if you’re so inclined, you can check out on Apple or on Spotify or right here:

Main image: Sacheen Littlefeather at the 1973 Oscars.