Native American actress Sacheen Littlefeather has finally received some justice after the Academy formally apologized to her for its 1973 Oscars abuse.
Littlefeather was humiliated after she refused the Oscar for best actor on behalf of Marlon Brando, facing a mixture of loud boos and cheers in her defense of the rights of Native Americans on national TV.
When Brando won the best actor for his starring role in The Godfather, he was absent. In his place, he asked Littlefeather, then an actress and activist, to attend the ceremony and refuse the award on his behalf.
Now, almost fifty years later, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has decided to revisit the outrageous abuse she experienced during her speech and in the years that followed.
In a letter to Littlefeather, David Rubin, the former Academy president, wrote, that “the abuse [she] endured because of [her] statement was unwarranted and unjustified.”
“The emotional burden you have lived through and the cost to your own career in our industry are irreparable,” said Rubin in addressing Littlefeather. “For too long the courage you showed has been unacknowledged. For this, we offer both our deepest apologies and our sincere admiration.”
The Academy said she will appear at the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures next month to discuss her history-making Oscars appearance and the future of representation for Indigenous peoples onscreen.
The moment of abuse for Littlefeather at the Oscars
Heading quietly and calmly in a buckskin dress to the podium, Littlefeather solemnly introduced herself as an Apache woman and president of the National Native American Affirmative Image Committee.
She said, Marlon Brando “very regretfully cannot accept this very generous award, and the [reason] for this […is] the treatment of American Indians today by the film industry.”
A loud mix of boos and applause was the mode of the audience as she proceeded and they paused and became 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…meet with love and generosity,” she said.
Among other reasons, 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.
“I promised Brando that I wouldn’t touch the Oscar statuette,” Littlefeather further added.
1973 Oscars cost the Native American Actress’s Career
In a recent interview with A.frame, an online publication of the academy, Littlefeather said, “I focused in on the mouths and the jaws that were dropping open in the audience, and there were quite a few.”
“But it was like looking into a sea of Clorox, you know…there were very few people of color in the audience,” she added.
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 be taken off the stage, though he was restrained by security guards.
After the event, 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 criticism from some individuals in Hollywood who disagreed with her defenses of Native Americans, Littlefeather said she received praise and support from leaders such as Coretta Scott King and Cesar Chavez.
“I knew I had done the right thing,” she told A.frame.
Academy’s apology “a dream come true” for Native Americans
Responding to her impending appearance at the Academy, during which she’ll receive the apology in person, in a statement, Littlefeather called the upcoming event “a dream come true.”
“Regarding the Academy’s apology to me,” she said, “we Indians are very patient people, [and] it’s only been [fifty] years! We need to keep our sense of humor about this at all times. It’s our method of survival.”
“It is profoundly heartening to see how much has changed since I did not accept the Academy Award [fifty] years ago,” she added.
During her event, several Native American artists will perform, including Bird Runningwater, co-chair of the Academy’s Indigenous Alliance.
In a distinct way, Virginia Carmelo, a descendent of the Tongva people will lead the grand acknowledgment session.