Native American actress and activist Sacheen Littlefeather died today at age 75 at her home in the town of Novato, California.
Born Marie Louise Cruz in 1946, Littlefeather came into national prominence at the 1973 Academy Awards, during which the then 26-year-old famously appeared on stage to reveal that actor Marlon Brando would not be accepting his Oscar for The Godfather — in protest of the treatment of Native Americans in Hollywood and beyond.
Identifying herself as an Apache and clad in a buckskin dress, Littlefeather addressed the live audience and millions watching via satellite on Brando's behalf: "He very regretfully cannot accept this very generous award. The reasons for this being are the treatment of American Indians today by the film industry. And on television in movie reruns, and also with recent happenings at Wounded Knee."
Referencing the ongoing standoff between Native American activists and the FBI in South Dakota, Littlefeather became the first person to ever make a political statement at the Oscars. But the backlash was immediate, with the speech drawing loud boos from the crowd along with numerous jokes and comments throughout the show. She later told the Los Angeles Times in 2016 that it took six security guards to hold actor John Wayne back from storming the stage to remove her.
Nonetheless, the moment became an iconic part of Oscars history — and achieved its goal of raising awareness about racism and lack of diversity in Hollywood. In the immediate aftermath, Littlefeather was praised by activists like Cesar Chavez and Coretta Scott King. And decades later, actress Jada Pinkett-Smith would write to Littlefeather, citing her as an inspiration behind the #OscarsSoWhite boycott of the Academy in 2016.
Littlefeather, however, has since revealed that she was effectively blacklisted from the entertainment industry following her stunt. She would go on to earn a degree in holistic health, and later dedicate much her life to activism and education — including teaching traditional Indian medicine at St. Mary’s Hospital, serving on the board of the American Indian AIDS Institute of San Francisco, and advising on numerous documentaries and PBS specials.
Nearly half a century after Littlefeather first took the stage, the Academy has finally taken responsibility for its response to her statement at the 1973 Oscars. Just earlier this year, in June 2022, the Academy issued her a formal "statement of reconciliation" written by president David Rubin.
“The abuse you endured because of this statement was unwarranted and unjustified," Rubin wrote. "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.”
"Regarding the Academy’s apology to me, we Indians are very patient people — it’s only been 50 years!," Littlefeather wrote in her own response. "We need to keep our sense of humor about this at all times. It’s our method of survival."
\u201cJust a reminder that it took 6 security guards to keep John Wayne from rushing the stage and attack Sacheen Littlefeather at the Academy Awards while Clint Eastwood mocked her request of TV and Film industry to treat indigenous people as humans.\u201d— AskAubry \ud83e\udd9d (@AskAubry \ud83e\udd9d) 1660625821
\u201cSacheen Littlefeather has passed away. While people remember her for her acceptance speech on behalf of Marlon Brando, Know that she also ended the media blackout of the Wounded Knee occupation, won an Emmy & co-founded the American Indian AIDS Institute of San Francisco. RIP \ud83d\udc4a\ud83c\udffc\u201d— Ruth H. Robertson (Red Road Woman) (@Ruth H. Robertson (Red Road Woman)) 1664770118
\u201cWhen I talk about how our current Native storytelling movement in Hollywood is built on the shoulders of activists fighting tirelessly for decades for Native people to finally get our day in the sun, I'm talking about Sacheen Littlefeather. \nRIP\u201d— Joey Clift - Spirit Rangers 10/10 on Netflix (@Joey Clift - Spirit Rangers 10/10 on Netflix) 1664766568
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