Sacheen Littlefeather accepted the Academy’s apology over the weekend on behalf of “all of our nations that also need to hear and deserve this apology”
After extending a formal apology earlier this year to Native American actress and activist Sacheen Littlefeather, who famously appeared at the 1973 Academy Awards to refuse the legendary Marlon Brando’s Best Actor Oscar for The Godfather, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences celebrated Littlefeather and her legacy with an event aimed at reconciliation.
“I am here accepting this apology,” said Littlefeather, 75, who appeared onstage at LosAngeles’ Academy Museum of Motion Pictures for “An Evening with Sacheen Littlefeather” over the weekend. “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.”
During the event, which included a program of Native American song and dance largely curated by Littlefeather herself, Academy officials made it clear the organization was eager to belatedly mend fences with both the activist herself and the Native American community as a whole, nearly 50 years after the onstage incident resulted in boos and, later, racial insults, as well as the silencing of the then-26-year-old actress through industry blacklisting.
Speaking onstage with producer and former Sundance Film Festival programmer Bird Runningwater before a packed house at the Museum’s David Geffen Theater that included a large Native American audience, Littlefeather — from a wheelchair, looking somewhat frail physically but still strong in spirit — recounted details of her appearance at the 45th annual Academy Awards, held at Los Angeles’ DorothyChandler Pavilion on March 27, 1973.
Brando was considered the frontrunner for the Best Actor trophy for his now-iconic role as The Godfather‘s Don Vito Corleone. Along with being involved in Native America causes in the San Francisco area, including a protest occupying Alcatraz, Littlefeather was a young performer of Apache and Yaqui with several beauty pageant titles, modeling assignments, radio and TV commercials to her credit.
“First of all, back then I wore a size 10,” she quipped. “Marlon Brando, who was a friend of mine, asked me to refuse the Academy Award for him,” Littlefeather recalled — both were deeply concerned about the media blackout surrounding the ongoing Native American occupation at Wounded Knee, North Dakota, at the time. “We were in collaboration at that time, because he was very aware of the stereotype of NativeAmerican Indians in film, television and the sports industry and so was I. And so he wrote an about a six or seven-page speech, and he asked me to deliver this to theOscars in 1973 on his behalf. And so I agreed.”
Brando asked the young activist if she had anything formal to wear to the ceremony. She admitted she, like most people her age at the time, typically wore jeans and t-shirts, which dismayed even the actor — but she did have a traditional buckskin dress. “And he said, ‘Well, that’s good – wear that!’ So in a way, he chose my wardrobe for me.”
On the night of the ceremony, Brando, she said, “took his sweet loving time” composing the lengthy speech, leaving Littlefeather and his personal secretary Alice Marchak with little time to make it to the awards, arriving just 20 minutes before they concluded. “The security guards found this couple, myself in a buckskin dress, and his secretary dressed in an evening gown,” she recalled. “I’m sure they were wondering why are we dressed like that? And why are we here?”
The broadcast’s executive producer Howard Koch was called to weigh in.
“Alice had the official invitation for Marlon Brando, so [Koch] said okay,” Littlefeather recounted. “And he told me right then, ‘If you read that speech and you go over 60 seconds, I will have you put in handcuffs. You see those police over there? I will have you arrested, put in jail…You have 60 seconds or less to represent Marlon.’ I said okay.”
“I wasn’t under any pressure that night,” she chuckled, noting that she drew strength from her ancestral faith when presenters Roger Moore and Liv Ullman (“One of my favorite actresses!” she said) announced Brando as the Best Actor winner. “I knew that the Creator was with me. I had prayed to my ancestors to be with me that night, and it was with prayer that I went up there. I went up there like a proud Indian woman with dignity, with courage, with grace and with humility. And as I began to walk up those steps, I knew that I had to speak the truth. Some people may accept it, and some people may not. But as I walked up those stairs, I knew that people would either be receptive or not.”
Taking the stage, Littlefeather respectfully refused to take the Oscar when it was offered by Moore — keeping her promise to Brando not to touch the trophy — and took the podium with Brando’s speech in hand, introducing herself as an Apache and president of the National Native American Affirmative Image Committee. Knowing she couldn’t read Brando’s full text, she improvised a response for the live television cameras, which were broadcasting to 85 million people around the globe.
“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,” she offered. “And the reasons for this being are the treatment of American Indians today by the film industry.”
At this point a small chorus of boos began to sound through the theater, counterbalanced by an appreciative smattering of applause, before Littlefeather could continue. “Excuse me — 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 then followed Moore and Ullman off stage.
Littlefeather then recounted an oft-repeated bit of Oscar lore. “There is some commotion behind the stage, and I didn’t find out that that was all about, but it was big John Wayne getting ready to assault me,” she said. “He had to be held back by six security men, to prevent him from doing so. Now that was the most violent act that ever took place at the Academy Awards.”
Backstage, Littlefeather was subjected to some sneering and racially insensitive remarks as she was escorted to face the media. “When I left that stage, I heard some comments from the people back there, and it was [stereotypical war cries] and the ‘tomahawk chop,'” she explained. “And I just kept walking in dignity to the four different press rooms that I went to. And then after that I held my head high and I left with a car that was waiting for me.”
Brando’s refusal, and his use of Littlefeather as his proxy, prompted a firestorm of reaction in its aftermath, and a range of reactions among his peers.
For her part, Littlefeather was proud of what she’d done on Brando’s behalf, then and now, despite any industry blowback that curtailed her acting ambitions. “I didn’t represent myself, I was representing all indigenous voices out there, all indigenous people, because we have never been heard in that way before,” she said. “And if I had to pay the price of admission, then that was okay because those doors had to be open…Somebody had to do it, and it was okay and I had to pay the price, so that wasall right, too.”
“She was essentially blacklisted after she appeared on the Oscars,” Runningwater, who serves as co-chair of the Academy’s Indigenous Alliance, told PEOPLE. “She was persona non grata and there were threats alleged that if she was hired here, there, anywhere, people would receive ramifications. So she didn’t let it deter her in terms of her politics and her activism; she went back to the community and embedded herself in the fight for the community.”
“It did hinder her career, but I also wonder and question, what kinds of roles were those 50 years ago that she was trying to be considered for?” Runningwater added, saying that Hollywood clung to stereotypes for many years beyond 1973. “We haven’t moved so faraway from those images, but we’re getting better.”