Sacheen Littlefeather, who gave Marlon Brando’s Oscar rejection speech, dies at 75

Sacheen Littlefeather (Apache/Yaqui/Arizona), the Native American actress and activist who took the stage at the 1973 Oscars to reveal that Marlon Brando would not accept his Oscar for The Godfather, is dead. She was 75 years old.

Littlefeather died Sunday noon at her home in the northern California town of Novato, surrounded by her loved ones, according to a statement sent by her caretaker. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which reconciled with Littlefeather in June and held a celebration in her honor just two weeks ago, revealed the news on social media on Sunday evening.

Littlefeather revealed in March 2018 that she had been diagnosed with stage 4 breast cancer and had metastasized in recent years.

Brando had decided to boycott the March 1973 Oscars to protest the way Native Americans were portrayed on screen and to pay tribute to the ongoing occupation at Wounded Knee, during which 200 members of the American Indian Movement (AIM) competed against thousands of Americans. marshals and other federal agents in the city of South Dakota.

After presenters Liv Ullmann and Roger Moore listed the nominees for Best Actor and Ullmann called out Brando’s name as the winner, the broadcast cut to Littlefeather, then 26 and dressed in traditional Apache dress, walking to the stage from his seat at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion as the announcer explained, “Accepting the award for Marlon Brando and The GodfatherMiss Sacheen Littlefeather.

Littlefeather, however, raised her right hand to decline the statuette offered by Moore as she reached the podium and told Chandler’s audience and the 85 million viewers watching at home that Brando “unfortunately cannot accept this very generous price.

Speaking in a measured but off-the-cuff tone – Brando, who had told her not to touch the trophy, gave her an eight-page typed speech, but broadcast producer Howard Koch informed her that she hadn’t no longer than 60 seconds – she continued, “And the reasons for that are the treatment of American Indians today by the film industry…and on television in film reruns, and also with recent events at Wounded Knee.”

Littlefeather’s remarks were greeted around the building with a handful of boos and applause, but public sentiment in the aftermath of his appearance was largely negative. Some media questioned her Indigenous heritage (her father was Apache and Yaqui and her mother was white) and claimed she rented her costume for the ceremony, while conservative celebrities such as John Wayne, Clint Eastwood and Charlton Heston – three actors who had starred in many a Western – reportedly criticized Brando and Littlefeather’s actions.

As she became an indelible part of Oscar lore, Wayne “was backstage, ready to take me off stage,” she told the Los Angeles Times in 2016. “He had to be restrained by six security guards.” That may not have been the case, an investigation found.

Either way, nearly 50 years later, the Academy has issued an apology to him.

“The abuse you suffered because of this statement was unwarranted and unwarranted,” AMPAS President David Rubin wrote to him in a letter dated June 18. “The emotional toll you have experienced and the cost of your own career in our industry is irreparable. For too long, the courage you have shown has gone unrecognized. For this, we present to you both our most sincere apologies and our sincere admiration.

“I was stunned. I never thought I would live to see the day I would hear this, experience this,” Littlefeather said. The Hollywood Reporter. “When I was on the podium in 1973, I was standing there alone.”

Born Marie Louise Cruz on November 14, 1946, in the northern California coastal town of Salinas, Littlefeather was primarily raised by her mother’s parents. She began exploring her Indigenous identity at California State University in Hayward and participated in the Indigenous occupation to try to reclaim Alcatraz Island in 1969, and it was her activist friends who renamed her.

Soon after, Littlefeather received a full scholarship to study acting at the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco. “Dancing and performing was an escape from reality,” she said The Native American time in 2010.

She got work in radio and television commercials (including as Miss Vampire USA for a dark shadows promotion of the soap) but struggled to land major roles in Hollywood: “Americans liked Sandra Dee’s blonde look…I got speaking roles in Italian movies because they liked the exotic.”

In 1972, she took part in a project Playboy filming titled “Ten Little Indians” which was scrapped before publication when the Wounded Knee occupation began in February 1973. But after Littlefeather’s Oscar appearance, Playboy printed her photos as a standalone feature, further discrediting her in some people’s eyes.

She had first met Brando a few years earlier when she was in Washington giving a presentation to the FCC on race and minorities.

“In the 70s you had AIM and the Indian civil rights movement and that was the part I was in,” she said. “I was a spokesperson, so to speak, for the stereotype of Native Americans in film and television. All I said was, “We don’t want Chuck Connors playing Geronimo.”

When she mentioned to Brando that she didn’t have a dress for the Oscars, “Marlon told me to wear my buckskin,” she said in the 2018 documentary. Sacheen: Breaking the Silence.

Three months after the Oscars, Brando appeared on The Dick Cavett Show and said he “was embarrassed for Sacheen. She wasn’t able to say what she was going to say, and I was distressed that people were booing, hissing, and stomping even though it might be directed at me. They should have at least had the courtesy to listen to him.

Although Brando’s stunt had the effect of bringing renewed attention to Wounded Knee, Littlefeather said it endangered her life and killed her acting career, claiming she lost her guild membership and had been banned from the industry. (Furthermore, the Academy later prohibited winners from sending proxies to accept — or reject — awards on their behalf.)

“I was blacklisted – or, you could say, ‘redlisted,'” Littlefeather said in her documentary. “Johnny Carson, Dick Cavett and others didn’t want me on their shows. … The doors were shut tight, never to be opened again.

Littlefeather has managed to appear in a handful of films (Billy Jack’s Trial, Johnny Firecloud and winter falcon among them) before quitting acting for good and earning a degree in holistic health from Antioch University with a minor in Native American medicine. Her wellness work included writing a health column for the Kiowa Tribal newspaper in Oklahoma, teaching in the Traditional Indian Medicine program at St. Mary’s Hospital in Tucson , Arizona, and working with Mother Teresa on behalf of AIDS patients in the Bay Area. She later served as a founding board member of the American Indian AIDS Institute in San Francisco.

Littlefeather also continued her involvement in the arts, co-founding the nonprofit National American Indian Performing Arts Registry in the early ’80s, advising on several PBS programs, and continuing to advocate for Native American inclusion in Hollywood (she appeared in the 2009 documentary Coil Injun).

“I was the first woman of color to make a political statement in Oscar history,” Littlefeather said in Sacheenand at the time, Coretta Scott King and Cesar Chavez were among the few to publicly praise his Oscar speech.

But over the decades, her onstage advocacy proved to be a precursor to the conversation about diversity in Hollywood that continues today, and Jada Pinkett Smith has cited her as inspiration for her own boycott. of the 2016 Oscars (the #OscarsSoWhite ceremony).

The two exchanged emails at the time, with Smith writing: “Thank you for being one of the brave and courageous to help pave the way for those of us who need a refresher. importance of just being true.”

Littlefeather will be buried next to her husband, Charles Koshiway (Otoe/Sac&Fox), in Red Rock, Oklahoma. Koshiway died of blood cancer in November 2021. The two met 32 ​​years ago at a powwow at the University of California, Davis.

“The day before we met, I dreamed that I was being introduced to this handsome Indian, and he tilted his white Stetson cowboy hat and spoke in this very soft Oklahoma accent: ‘How are you?'” she said THR in August. “The next day my roommate and I went to the UC Davis powwow and under that white Stetson cowboy hat was this very handsome Indian, and the first thing he did was raise his hat, to look me in the eye and say: ‘How is it going ? That’s all it took. The man of my dreams.”

After receiving the Academy’s apology, Littlefeather said of her late husband, “His spirit is always with me, and I know what he always wanted for me was justice and reconciliation. .” And two weeks before her death, when she walked on stage at the Academy for the second time in her life, at the museum’s celebration in her honor, she knew her own passing was imminent: “I will soon cross the spirit world. And you know, I’m not afraid to die. Because we come from a we/us/our society. We do not come from a me/I/myself society. And we learn to give from an early age. When we are honored, we give.

A Catholic Requiem Mass for her will be held this month at St. Rita’s Church in Fairfax, Calif., with a reception to follow. Littlefeather has requested that donations be made to Native American Children’s Resource Center from Oakland.

In her last public appearance, she again spoke on behalf of all Indigenous peoples: “I am here to accept this apology, not just for myself alone, but as a gesture of gratitude, knowing that it was not only for me, but for all of our nations who need to hear and deserve this apology tonight. Look at our people. Look at each other and be proud that we are all survivors. Please, when I am gone, always remember that every time you stand up for your truth, you will keep my voice, and the voices of our nations and our people, alive.

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