By Laurence Lerman / New York City
Before the craziness of actor Will Smith and his notorious slap of comedian Chris Rock in March, the onstage appearance of Native American actress and activist Sacheen Littlefeather at the 45th Academy Awards declining Marlon Brando’s award for The Godfather was one of the most memorable and controversial moments in the history of the Oscars.
Littlefeather died on Sunday, October 2, at her home in Novato, California. She was 75. Though no official cause of death has been announced, Littlefeather disclosed in March 2018 that she had been diagnosed with stage 4 breast cancer.
At the Academy Awards on March 27, 1973, Brando was announced by presenters Roger Moore and Liv Ullman as having won the Oscar for Best Actor for his performance as Don Vito Corleone in The Godfather. Up from the audience rose not Brando, but rather an unknown, striking-looking 26-year-old woman named Sacheen Littlefeather. Clad in Native American garb, she walked onto the stage and refused to accept the statuette. In a short, prepared speech on behalf of Brando, Littlefeather said that the actor was turning down the award as a protest against “the treatment of American Indians today by the film industry.” She also cited an ongoing case of Native American abuse in the South Dakota town of Wounded Knee.
The audience at Los Angeles’ Dorothy Chandler Pavilion reacted with a confusing combination of boos, jeers and a smattering of applause. Then, little more than a minute after Littlefeather had taken the stage, she exited to the right, followed by a slightly dazed Moore and Ullman. Littlefeather then headed to the press room to deliver a longer speech on the issues.
Littlefeather, who is of White Mountain Apache and Yaqui descent, was the first Native American women to ever stand on the stage at an Academy Awards ceremony.
For Littlefeather, who says she originally met Brando “through his interest in the Indian movement,” the effects of that fateful evening were long-lasting.
Over the ensuing years, Littlefeather spoke of how her acting career came an abrupt halt after the Oscars. Though she appeared in a few minor, uncredited roles in the Hollywood productions The Laughing Policeman (1973) and Freebie and the Bean (1974), there weren’t many more opportunities forthcoming. Before the decade’s end, the acting chapter of Littlefeather’s life came to close.
Littlefeather has spent the past four-plus decades since then working to provide healthcare education and advocacy for the Native American community and was, until recently, the president of the National Native American Affirmative Image Committee (with which she’d been associated since the 1960s). She has also pursued a career in hospice care and worked with AIDS patients alongside Mother Teresa in the 1980s.
This past June, nearly 50 years later, the Academy Museum of Moton Pictures formally apologized to Littlefeather for the treatment she received that evening and in the years that followed. The apology began in the form of a letter sent to her that month from former President of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences David Rubin (his term ended in August).
“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 sincere admiration,” read a portion of the correspondence.
Littlefeather announced that she was “stunned” by the apology.
“I never thought I’d live to see the day I would be hearing this, experiencing this,” she said.
“Regarding the Academy’s apology to me, we Indians are very patient people—it’s only been 50 years!” she added. “We need to keep our sense of humor about this at all times. It’s our method of survival.”
Additionally, the Academy held a special program with Littlefeather on September 17 at the Academy Museum. The activist and former actress participated in a conversation with producer Bird Runningwater, co-chair of the Academy’s Indigenous Alliance.
“An Evening with Sacheen Littlefeather” was to be her final public appearance, which found her taking to an Academy stage again, in a wheelchair this time, and speaking graciously but firmly on behalf of all Native peoples:
“I am here accepting this apology, 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. Look at our people. Look at each other and be proud that we stand as survivors, all of us. Please, when I’m gone, always be reminded that whenever you stand for your truth, you will be keeping my voice, and the voices of our nations, and our people, alive.”
Laurence Lerman is a film journalist, former editor of Video Business--Variety's DVD trade publication--and husband to The Insider's own Gwen Cooper. Over the course of his career he has conducted one-on-one interviews with just about every major director working today, including Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino, Clint Eastwood, Kathryn Bigelow, Ridley Scott, Walter Hill, Spike Lee, and Werner Herzog, among numerous others. Once James Cameron specifically requested an interview with Laurence by name, which his wife still likes to brag about. Most recently, he is the co-founder and editor-in-chief of the online review site DiscDish.com.