Sacheen Littlefeather and the 1973 Oscars
What you should know
On Tuesday, March 27, 1973, the 45th Academy awards took place. This was marked by many big events, including two African American women being nominated for the best actress award for the first time. However, it seems that a pivotal moment has slipped through the cracks for the person involved.
Marlon Brando was a shoo-in for best actor for his role in The Godfather as Vito Corleone. It was not his first nomination or win, yet he decided to decline the award and boycott the entire ceremony. He wrote quite a lengthy statement that would be later published in the press. The entire speech was 739 words (about fifteen pages), and Littlefeather was prohibited by producers from reading it in its entirety. A short summary went something like this: “The motion picture community has been as responsible as any, for degrading the Indian and making a mockery of his character, describing his as savage, hostile and evil.” Now Brando had been involved with many causes, not limited to, but including African American civil rights and the Black Panther Party, the American Indian Movement, and supported the formation of a Jewish state in the 1940’s.
Obviously, this was something he felt strongly about, so he decided to boycott the ceremony as a form of protest led by the AIM, against the ongoing siege at wounded knee during this time, decline the award, and sent a Native American friend in his place. This young lady’s name was Sacheen Littlefeather. There are conflicting stories on how they originally met, but they are all available online for anyone interested. She made her way into the audience shortly before the nominees for best actor was announced, accompanied by Brando’s secretary. She appeared in an Apache buckskin dress. When Marlon Brando was announced as the winner, she walked up on stage and raised her hand to decline the award that was being handed to her by Roger Moore. As I stated earlier, she was not allowed to give the speech in its entirety, so she condensed it down to 60 seconds. Whether it was because the producers threatened to have her removed or allowed her the 60 seconds if she didn’t make a scene is still up for debate. Her speech went something like this:
“Hello. My name is Sacheen Littlefeather. I'm Apache and I am 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 – excuse me... [boos and cheers] and on television in movie re-runs, 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.”
This was met with a mixed reaction of cheers and boos. After her speech, Roger Moore escorted her backstage, where she was met with critical and even racist actions such as the “tomahawk chop” directed at her. It was even reported that security (supposedly six guards) had to hold John Wayne back from going after her and removing her from the stage by force. Raquel Welch and Clint Eastwood made snide remarks while presenting other awards. She read the letter in its entirety while doing a press conference afterwards. This led to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to no longer allow acceptance by proxy.
While she has said in some interviews that this had little or no effect on her career, she has stated in others that it led to her being blackballed from the Hollywood community as well as caused her to receive threats. It is believed that the Federal government could have encouraged this blacklisting to curb the Native American activism at Wounded Knee. There were also many rumors that tried to discredit her work, such as that she wasn’t actually Native American, and that the Apache buckskin dress she wore was actually just a rental, a mere prop. She has stated that after the speech, she had gone to visit Brando, and that bullets were fired at the front door while they were talking. At the time though, she had stated that Brando was on his way to Wounded Knee, so this fact is up for debate.
She certainly had her share of detractors, and even some Native Americans, including Jay Silverheels, who played Tonto in The Lone Ranger felt that it neither done harm nor good. She also had people who supported her. Coretta Scott King thanked her through a phone call and commended Brando as well. Even Jada Pinkett Smith cited her as inspiration when she herself boycotted the ceremony, citing a lack of diversity in the nominations.
This wasn’t her only foray into activism. She worked with Greenpeace in Newfoundland to protest the seal hunt with other celebrities. She was a staff member of the American Indian Center and is credited with co-founding the American Indian Registry for Performing Arts. She also worked in San Francisco as the secretary and as a community member-at-large for the American Indian AIDS institute of San Francisco. These are just some of the things she has done for the Native American/Indigenous community. To list them all would be its own article, and she has received many awards for her work and contributions.
While she is still alive today, she stated in a 2021 interview that she has stage 4 cancer that had metastasized in her right lung and is terminally ill. Her work and legacy should not be dismissed or forgotten through history, no matter how long she has left on this planet, nor should any of us let it.
For more information about her, you may visit her website at sacheenlittlefeather.net, or on her Wikipedia page.
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