Politics

Sacheen Littlefeather, Native American actor who famously refused Brando’s Oscar in 1973, has died

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The Hollywood Reporter in its obituary described the scene at the 1973 Oscars:

After presenters Liv Ullmann and Roger Moore listed the nominees for best actor and Ullmann called out Brando’s name as the winner, the telecast cut to Littlefeather, then 26 and wearing a traditional Apache dress, walking to the stage from her seat at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion as the announcer explained, “Accepting the award for Marlon Brando and The Godfather, Miss Sacheen Littlefeather.”

Littlefeather, however, held up her right hand to decline the statuette proffered by Moore as she reached the podium and told the Chandler audience and the 85 million viewers watching at home that Brando “very regretfully cannot accept this very generous award.”

Speaking in measured tones but off-the-cuff — Brando, who told her not to touch the trophy, had given her a typed eight-page speech, but telecast producer Howard Koch informed her she had no more than 60 seconds — she continued, “And the reasons for this being are the treatment of American Indians today by the film industry … and on television in movie reruns, and also with recent happenings at Wounded Knee.”

Littlefeather’s remarks were met in the building by a smattering of boos as well as applause, but public sentiment in the immediate aftermath of her appearance was largely negative.

Watch the exchange below:

A few days later, The New York Times published Brando’s entire speech. Coretta Scott King and Cesar Chávez were among the few who praised Littlefeather at the time. But conservative film stars, including John Wayne, Clint Eastwood, and Charlton Heston—who had starred in numerous Westerns—were very critical. 

In June 1973, Brando appeared on The Dick Cavett Show and said he “was distressed that people should have booed and whistled and stomped” when Littlefeather made her remarks. But Brando said he was “very glad that she did have what opportunity she had to say what she did.” 

The entertainment website Deadline reported:

Earlier this year, a documentary titled Sacheen: Breaking The Silence had Littlefeather revealing she was “blacklisted” by Hollywood following the political stunt.

“It was the first time anyone had made a political statement at the Oscars,” Littlefeather says in the documentary. “It was the first Oscars ceremony to be broadcast by satellite all over the world, which is why Marlon chose it. I didn’t have an evening dress so Marlon told me to wear my buckskin.”

She added: “I was blacklisted — or, you could say, ‘redlisted.’  Johnny Carson, Dick Cavett and others didn’t want me on their shows. … The doors were closed tight, never to reopen.”

This June, the Academy issued an apology to Littlefeather :

“The abuse you endured because of this statement was unwarranted and unjustified,” then-AMPAS president David Rubin wrote to her in a letter dated June 18. “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.”

“I was stunned. I never thought I’d live to see the day I would be hearing this, experiencing this,” Littlefeather told The Hollywood Reporter. “When I was at the podium in 1973, I stood there alone.”

After the Oscars, Littlefeather appeared in a few films, including The Trial of Billy Jack, but she eventually quit acting for good and earned a degree in holistic health from Antioch University, with a minor in Native American medicine, The Hollywood Reporter wrote. She taught in a traditional Indian medicine program at St. Mary’s Hospital in Tucson, Arizona, and served as a founding board member of the American Indian AIDS Institute of San Francisco.

Littlefeather also continued to be an advocate for Native American inclusion in Hollywood. The Hollywood Reporter said her onstage advocacy “proved to be a precursor for the conversation about diversity in Hollywood that continues today, and Jada Pinkett Smith cited her as an inspiration for her own boycott of the 2016 Academy Awards (the #OscarsSoWhite ceremony).”

In an email to Littlefeather, Pinkett Smith wrote: “Thank you for being one of the brave and courageous to help pave the way for those of us who need a reminder of the importance to simply be true.”

Littlefeather’s final public appearance came on Sept. 17 at an event honoring her at the Academy Museum in Los Angeles during which the statement of apology was read. 

She accepted the award on behalf of all Native peoples, according to The Hollywood Reporter.

“I am here accepting this apology, not only for me alone but as acknowledgment, knowing that it was not only for me, but for all of our nations that also need to hear and deserve this apology tonight. Look at our people. Look at each other and be proud that we stand as survivors, all of us. Please, when I’m gone, always be reminded that whenever you stand for your truth, you will be keeping my voice, and the voices of our nations, and our people, alive.”




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