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Who Is Sacheen Littlefeather? Oscars Controversy Explained

Newsweek 8/16/2022 Molli Mitchell

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has issued an apology to Native American actor Sacheen Littlefeather, 49 years after her groundbreaking speech at the 1973 Oscars.

Littlefeather made her way onto the Oscars stage after it was announced Marlon Brando had won the award for best actor for his performance in The Godfather.

She gave a passionate speech on his behalf but was met by a largely negative response from the audience. She claimed in an interview with A.frame, the Academy's digital magazine, that John Wayne had to be restrained by bodyguards as he tried to make his way to pull her off of the stage.

So, who is Sacheen Littelfeather and what has the Academy said? Newsweek has everything you need to know.

Who Is Sacheen Littlefeather?

Born to a Native American Indian father and Caucasian mother in California in 1946, Littlefeather was raised by her maternal grandparents when her birth parents became unfit to raise her on their own.

After graduating high school, Littlefeather pursued a career in modeling and studied dramatics and speech at California State College at Hayward (now California State University, East Bay).

Littlefeather was also an activist. After joining the United Bay Indian Council, she participated in the occupation of Alcatraz in 1970 and went on to serve as a spokesperson for the National American Indian Council.

At the 45th Academy Awards in 1973, Littlefeather, aged 26, walked up to the stage to decline Brando's best actor Oscar on his behalf, becoming the first person to make a political statement at the ceremony.

Brando had won the award for his performance as Don Vito Corleone in Francis Ford Coppola's The Godfather and he had personally asked Littlefeather on March 26, 1973, to speak for him the following day at the ceremony if he won.

Taking to the stage, Littlefeather said Brando had declined to accept the award in protest at Hollywood's portrayal of Native Americans in entertainment and to draw attention to the stand-off between American Indian Movement (AIM) activists and the United States government at Wounded Knee, located on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in southwestern South Dakota.

In this combination image, Native American Sacheen Littlefeather speaks at the 45th Academy Awards. On behalf of Marlon Brando, she refused the Best Actor award he was awarded for his role in Godfather. Brando refused the award because of the treatment by the Americans of the American Indian. Inset image of Brando as Don Vito Corleone in 'The Godfather', 1972. Getty © Getty In this combination image, Native American Sacheen Littlefeather speaks at the 45th Academy Awards. On behalf of Marlon Brando, she refused the Best Actor award he was awarded for his role in Godfather. Brando refused the award because of the treatment by the Americans of the American Indian. Inset image of Brando as Don Vito Corleone in 'The Godfather', 1972. Getty

On February 27, 1973, 200 members of the Oglala Lakota subtribe and followers of the AIM had occupied the town of Wounded Knee in protest at the Oglala Lakota president Richard Wilson and the U.S. government's failure to fulfill treaties with Native Americans.

The 739-word speech Brando had prepared was too long to be read during the broadcast, and instead Littleweather was informed she had just 60 seconds to give Brando's speech, or she would be arrested.

During the speech, she said: "I'm Sacheen Littlefeather. I'm Apache and I'm 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 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.

"I beg at this time 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 Bando."

The moment had a catastrophic effect on Littlefeather's career and almost cost her her life. In the documentary Sacheen: Breaking the Silence, she said she had been blacklisted by Hollywood as a result of her speech.

In a recent conversation with A Frame, Littlefeather said: "I knew that I paid the price of admission so that others could follow. That I had done something, that I was the first to make a statement, a political statement. The first Native American Indian woman, the first woman of color to ever make a statement at the Academy Awards, telling the truth about the way that it really is. Not the second, not the third, not the fourth, but the first one—and that will always historically be true."

She continued: "It was met with such hostility and anger, and I nearly paid the price with my life as a result. When I went back to Marlon's house, there was an incident with people shooting at me. And there were two bullet holes that came through the doorway of where I was standing, and I was on the other side of it...It's situations like this that make you really think, you know, what if, what if, what if? And yet, I was never allowed to tell my story. Never. Never. And now, 50 years or so later, and here we are for the first time."

After the Academy Awards, Littlefeather continued to act in limited roles including The Trial of Billy Jack, Johny Fireload, and Winterhawk. She pursued a career in hospice care and has been a vocal activist for health-related and Native American issues ever since.

Littlefeather has also produced several films about Native Americans.

The Academy Apology to Sacheen Littlefeather in Full

In June 2022, David Rubin, then the president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, issued an apology to Littlefeather for the way she was treated at the 1973 ceremony.

The letter was published online on Monday, August 15, and will be read in full in an Evening with Sacheen Littlefeather on September 17.

The apology letter reads: "I write to you today a letter that has been a long time coming on behalf of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, with humble acknowledgment of your experience at the 45th Academy Awards.

"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.

"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."

Responding to the apology, Littlefeather said in a statement to the Academy: "Regarding the Academy's apology to me, 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."

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