The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has finally issued an apology to Sacheen Littlefeather, now 75, who was berated at the 1973 Oscars and blacklisted from Hollywood afterwards.
Littlefeather, who is Apache and Yaqui, attended the ceremony at the young age of 26. Wearing moccasins and a buckskin dress, Littlefeather took the stage in front of a resenting audience to explain why Marlon Brando would not be accepting the coveted Best Actor award for his role in The Godfather. Just a few minutes prior, a producer threatened her with arrest if she talked for more than 60 seconds. Brando had given her eight pages to read from, meaning she now only had a few moments to improvise a speech for the absent actor.
Brando had also given Littlefeather the instruction to not touch the idolized bronze statuette. So, as she walked up to the podium alone, she raised her hand at the award in refusal and calmly started with, “Hello, my name is Sacheen Littlefeather.” Littlefeather continued, saying that Brando “very regretfully cannot accept this very generous award.” The crowd started booing her when she explained this was due to the treatment of Native Americans by the film industry.
As the crowd ridiculed the Indigenous activist and actor, she also spoke out against the government’s response to protests at Wounded Knee. The Wounded Knee Occupation saw hundreds of Oglala Lakota people and supporters of the American Indian Movement (AIM) occupying the town to protest the tribal president’s corruption as well as the government’s failure to fulfill treaties with Native Americans. This standoff was happening concurrently with the highly publicized award ceremony, yet was receiving very little attention due to the media blackout that was issued by the U.S. Department of Justice. Littlefeather’s mere 60 seconds were devoted to calling out these issues to viewers.
Even though her speech was short and polite, Littlefeather was heckled offstage with mock ululations. John Wayne even had to be restrained by six men from running onstage and attacking her. Littlefeather concluded her speech by saying, “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.”
Since that night, Littlefeather has faced insurmountable ridicule and mockery. In 1990, Littlefeather reflected on the speech, noting that it killed her career in Hollywood: “I went up there thinking I could make a difference. I was very naive. I told people about oppression. They said, ‘You're ruining our evening.'” She said the federal government threatened to cancel any shows or productions that put her on the air. Her reputation had been ruined, with people calling into question the validity of her Native American identity and using her as a gross punchline.
“Yes, there's an apology that's due,” Littlefeather says. “As my friends in the Native community said, it's long overdue.” The activist now lives with metastasized breast cancer, and adds, “I could have been dead by now.” In June 2022, the Academy Museum president and director, Jacqueline Stewart, visited Littlefeather’s home to hand her that apology. Littlefeather was given a picture of her place in the museum, on a gallery wall right next to the “good company” of Sydney Poitier. She was also given a framed letter written by the then-president David Ruben.
Stewart read the apology letter to Littlefeather, which includes the following passage: “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.” Littlefeather started to cry when Stewart then went on to acknowledge and pay tribute to the work of Native American artists in today’s Hollywood, like actor Wes Studi and Reservation Dogs creator Sterlin Harjo. Littlefeather talked about gratitude for this new representation, saying, “At long last, somebody is breaking down the doors. And I’m so very happy this is happening—even though I don’t swear like they do on Reservation Dogs.”
The full apology statement will be read during the Academy Museum’s event on September 17, aptly named An Evening with Sacheen Littlefeather. The event, created to honor Littlefeather, will have performances from Indigenous singers and dancers and feature remarks from various Academy heads. Also, Littlefeather will have a conversation with Bird Runningwater, the co-chair of the Academy’s Indigenous Alliance.
Littlefeather remains positive and leads her life with daily “love, gratitude, and forgiveness.” She says, “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.”
Read the Academy’s full statement here.
During the 1973 Oscar ceremony, Native American activist and actor Sacheen Littlefeather took the stage on behalf of Marlon Brando to share that he was refusing the Best Actor award.
The crowd booed as she explained his refusal was due to the ill treatment of Native Americans by the film industry and the government's response to the protests at Wounded Knee.
Littlefeather was mistreated several ways: John Wayne threatened to physically attack her, a producer threatened her with arrest if she spoke too long, and others heckled her offstage with mock ululations.
After that night, she was blacklisted from Hollywood and her reputation was ruined.
In June 2022, almost 50 years later, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences issued an apology to Littlefeather, who is now 75.
The Academy Museum will also hold an event in her honor, where Indigenous singers and dancers will perform, various Academy heads will make remarks, and Littlefeather will have a conversation with Bird Runningwater.