R.I.P. Sacheen Littlefeather

Sacheen Littlefeather, who endured boos and mockery as she stood up for Native American rights while declining to accept Marlon Brando’s 1973 Best Actor Oscar for The Godfather, has died at 75. Her death was announced by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which this year apologized for her mistreatment during the ceremony, nearly 50 years ago.

Brando recruited Littlefeather, an actress and activist, the night before the ceremony. When his name was announced, she walked onto the stage in a buckskin dress and told an audience of 85 million people that Brando could not accept the award because of “the treatment of Indians today by the film industry.” It was one of the most dramatic and unforgettable moments in the Oscars’ 94-year history. Littlefeather has said that as she spoke, John Wayne, who was standing offstage, was so angry that he needed to be restrained by six security men.

The Academy held an event with Littlefeather, who has Apache and Yaqui ancestry, just two weeks ago, to apologize for the racist reception she received. “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,” she said when the event was announced.

During the event, Littlefeather, who last year disclosed a breast cancer diagnosis, said she was “crossing over to the spirit world” and “not afraid to die.” She also said in an interview with Variety that given a second chance to decline Brando’s Oscar, she would do it “in a heartbeat.”

“I did not do this totally for Marlon,” she told Variety. “I did not do this on my behalf. I did this for all Native people everywhere who suffered from racial prejudice and discrimination. I did it for all of those who were born under the umbrella of genocide, in the United States, and Canada, and for all of us who have suffered through extreme stereotypes which were not of our choosing.”

Littlefeather’s speech wasn’t just about Hollywood’s decades of racist portrayals of Native Americans: It also brought public attention to a standoff between federal agents and Native American activists at Wounded Knee, South Dakota. At the time of the Oscars, the government had ordered a media blackout, and the activists feared what the authorities might do, free of public scrutiny.

“The FBI had plans to take all those AIM-sters [American Indian Movement members] like Dennis Banks and my brothers Russell Means and Oren Lyons to a place like Guantanamo Bay. They would never be heard from again, but that did not happen because of my speech,” she told Variety.

Sacheen Littlefeather and Marlon Brando first crossed paths when Native American activists took over Alcatraz Island from November 20, 1969 through June 11, 1971. Littlefeather was one of the demonstrators, and Brando, who had used his fame for year to bring attention to Native Americans’ pursuit of justice, was among celebrities who visited to show support.

Brando and Littlefeather apparently didn’t speak at Alcatraz — instead, they first got in touch when Littlefeather wrote Brando a letter asking if he was truly committed to the cause. Littlefeather has said that when Brando contacted her about declining his award, just the day before the ceremony, she didn’t have an evening dress, and instead chose the traditional dress made of buckskin.

When Brando’s name was announced, audiences expecting to see On the Waterfront icon were surprised by the appearance of a complete unknown in buckskins. Presenter Roger Moore offered Littlefeather the Oscar, and she held out her palm to refuse it, instead starting her short speech. Many in the audience interrupted her with jeers and boos. “Excuse me,” she said. Applause soon drowned out the boos, and she continued.

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.)

Though it would be remembered for decades, the speech led to Littlefeather being largely shut out by Hollywood, she said. She went on to work in health and nutrition. Former Academy President David Rubin acknowledged Hollywood’s failings in the Academy’s apology earlier this year.

“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.”

If you’re interested in learning more about the story of Marlon Brando, Sacheen Littlefeather and John Wayne, we discussed it in a 2019 episode of the Shoot This Now podcast, which you can check out on Apple or on Spotify or right here:

Main image: Sacheen Littlefeather at the 1973 Oscars.