At the 1973 Academy Awards, Sacheen Littlefeather had just 60 seconds to address the audience. In her succinct statement, she declined the Oscar for best actor on behalf of Marlon Brando, drew loud jeers and boos, and spoke out in favor of Native American rights on live television.
The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is officially apologizing to Sacheen Littlefeather for the treatment she received both during her speech and in the years that followed, over 50 years after it occurred.
“The abuse you endured because of this statement was unwarranted and unjustified,” former Academy president David Rubin wrote in a letter to Sacheen Littlefeather. “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.”
According to the Academy, Sacheen Littlefeather will speak on her historic Oscars appearance and the future of Indigenous representation on screen at the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures next month.
Littlefeather described the approaching occasion, when she would hear the apology in person, as “a dream come true” in a statement.
It’s only been 50 years! Regarding the Academy’s apologies to me, she exclaimed, “We Indians are very patient people. “We must always maintain our sense of humor about this. It’s how we stay alive.”
Several Indigenous performers will take the stage during the Littlefeather event, including Virginia Carmelo, a Tongva descendant who will conduct a land acknowledgment, and Bird Runningwater, co-chair of the Academy’s Indigenous Alliance.
Littlefeather added, “It is extremely encouraging to see how much has changed in the fifty years since I refused to accept the Academy Award.
She was booed and cheered for her speech.
When Brando won best actor for his starring role in “The Godfather,” he was absent. In his stead, he asked Sacheen Littlefeather, then an actress and activist, to attend the ceremony — and to refuse the award on his behalf.
Taking the stage quietly and calmly in a buckskin dress, Littlefeather solemnly introduced herself as an Apache woman and president of the National Native American Affirmative Image Committee.
“(Brando) 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,” she said to a mix of boos and applause, pausing and appearing visibly upset. “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.”
Brando also refused to accept the award due to the federal response to Wounded Knee, when members of the American Indian Movement occupied the South Dakota town but were met by resistance from federal law enforcement. Sacheen Littlefeather said she promised Brando that she wouldn’t touch the Oscar statuette, she said.
“I focused in on the mouths and the jaws that were dropping open in the audience, and there were quite a few,” she told the official Academy blog, A.Frame. “But it was like looking into a sea of Clorox, you know, there were very few people of color in the audience.”
She also said that John Wayne, the conservative Western star who once said “Indians were selfishly trying to keep (the US) for themselves,” charged at her to “take (her) off the stage,” though he was restrained by security guards.
After the ceremony, Littlefeather said she was “silenced” and struggled to find work in the film industry. She dedicated much of her career post-Oscars to activism and founding performing arts organizations for Indigenous actors.
Despite the condemnation she received from some in Hollywood who disagreed with her defenses of Native Americans, Littlefeather said she received praise and support from leaders like Coretta Scott King and Cesar Chavez.
“I knew I had done the right thing,” she told A.Frame.