Better late than never. Almost fifty years after it happened, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences made a public apology to Sacheen Littlefeather in response to the controversial moment when she went on stage on Marlon Brando’s behalf in 1973 to turn down his Oscar for The Godfather in protest of Hollywood’s poor Native American representation, and the largely negative aftermath of that moment that cast a dark cloud over Littlefeather’s film career aspirations when she was blacklisted as a result. The negative treatment she got for that moment was totally unfair, for reasons that I will make clear as I tell you who Sacheen Littlefeather is.
Born in Salinas, California in 1946 under the name Marie Louise Cruz, the half Apache, half European-American daughter of two saddlemakers, Littlefeather had a difficult childhood with an abusive, short-tempered father, but when she wasn’t home and she was focusing on her academics, she excelled, and by 1969 she was studying at California State College in Hayward and began looking into her Native American roots and learning about her racial history, which led her to protest on behalf of American Indian rights as part of a group that called themselves the Indians of All Tribes (IOAT) in the 19-month long Occupation of Alcatraz (1969-71).
That occupation began back when the Alcatraz penitentiary was closed in 1963 and Alcatraz Island became federal property in 1964, even though the IOAT claimed that under the 1868 Treaty of Fort Laramie between the U.S. and the Lakota Tribe, all abandoned federal property was to be returned to the Native American tribe who owned it long before Europeans invaded the country.
The IOAT lived on that island during the protest until they were forcibly removed by the U.S. Government, although Littlefeather was a student so she was unable to live there full-time.
It was during this time that Marie Louise Cruz changed her name to Sacheen Littlefeather, “Sacheen” being the name her father called her before he died in 1966, and “Littlefeather” being a reference to her literal fashion sense, as that’s what she wore in her hair.
Littlefeather not only supported Native American causes while attending college but she also pursued a modeling career, studied speech, studied drama and aspired to be an actress. After doing some commercial work on radio and television, her career picked up steam in the seventies, acting in several Hollywood films while living in San Francisco and working at local radio station KFRC and Bay Area PBS affiliate KQED, for which she did freelance reporting.
She continued advocating for Native American rights in the seventies, speaking out in favor of more representation of minorites in film and television, and protesting Richard Nixon’s budget cuts to federal Indian programs, but the most famous thing she did that decade by far was appear on stage during the 1973 Academy Awards ceremony when an absent Marlon Brando expectedly won the Oscar for playing Vito Corleone in The Godfather, but Littlefeather went on stage instead.
To understand that moment better I will provide context. It all started with a grassroots movement known as the American Indian Movement (AIM) founded in Minneapolis, Minnesota in 1968, and the Wounded Knee Occupation of 1973, in which AIM followers occupied the town of Wounded Knee, South Dakota on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation following the failure to impeach Oglala Lakota president Richard Wilson, who many Sioux protestors viewed as a corrupt leader.
Marlon Brando, who disliked the racist portrayals of Native Americans in Hollywood and who was first introduced to Littlefeather by her Bay Area neighbor and Godfather director Francis Ford Coppola, fully supported the Wounded Knee Occupation and decided to boycott the Oscars that year, asking Littlefeather to go on his behalf to bring attention to the issue of American Indian rights.
When she walked to the stage after Brando’s name was announced, she declined the Oscar and this is what she said:
“Hello. My name is Sacheen Littlefeather. I’m Apache and I am president of the National Native American Affirmative Image Committee. I’m representing Marlon Brando this evening, and he has asked me to tell you in a very long speech which I cannot share with you presently, because of time, but I will be glad to share with the press afterwards, that he very regretfully cannot accept this very generous award. And the reasons 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. I beg at this time that I have not intruded upon this evening, and that we will in the future, our hearts and our understandings will meet with love and generosity. Thank you on behalf of Marlon Brando.”
She read the full speech to the press post-ceremony and the New York Times published it the next day. The reaction in the room was filled with cheers and jeers and the reaction across Hollywood was similarly mixed, with some people like Michael Caine saying that Brando should have had the courage to turn down the award himself instead of sending a young girl on stage as basically a human shield, while others said Brando and Littlefeather uplifted the people of Wounded Knee, although the general consensus in town at that time was that it was an inappropriate place to pull the stunt and it even caused the Academy to change their rules about proxy award acceptance.
Unfortunately though the entire thing was Brando’s idea, Littlefeather got most of the flack for it, in some ways gaining more popularity but also receiving more threats and eventually getting smeared by the media and blacklisted by Hollywood. Of course there were many people who agreed with Brando and Littlefeather’s message, including Martin Luther King Jr. who called Littlefeather to thank her for the speech, and in 2022, nearly 50 years after the incident, the Academy sent Littlefeather a public apology for the unfair and unwarranted abuse she went through and offered their “deepest apologies and sincere admiration.” Littlefeather, who described the message as a dream come true, accepted their apology, stating “We Indians are very patient people – it’s only been 50 years!”
But even after that Oscars speech and up to the present day, Littlefeather never stopped being an activist who protested injustice and served as an advisor to the entertainment industry on how best to give voice to the Native American community, whether through her work with PBS, documentaries like Reel Injun (2009), organizing events like the American Indian Festival, working with Greenpeace or directing the First Nation Education Resource Center in San Francisco. When it comes to putting a spotlight on racial injustice, Littlefeather was a unique and iconic Hollywood star in her own way.