The Academy Awards ceremony has always tried to avoid controversy, but on March 27, 1973, during the first worldwide satellite broadcast of the Oscars, Sacheen Littlefeather took the podium to accept the award for best actor. On behalf of Marlon Brando.
Littlefeather raised a hand to reject the Oscar statuette presented by Roger Moore. She delivered an eight-page speech that Brando had written for her, but had been told by the show’s producer, Howard W Koch, that she would only have 60 seconds to speak or be arrested.
He calmly announced that Brando was “very sorry that he was unable to accept this generous award” because of “the film and television industry’s treatment of American Indians in reruns, and also because of the recent events at Wounded Knee.” As he spoke, the site of the 1890 massacre of Sioux families by the Seventh Cavalry was occupied by Native Americans who had protested the murder of a Lakota man. To a mix of applause and jeers, he apologized, “I hope I didn’t intrude tonight and in the future our hearts will meet with love and understanding.”
According to the producers, actor John Wayne, who was backstage, had to be held by security. Clint Eastwood, who presented the best picture award for The Godfather, stated that he “didn’t know if I should present the award on behalf of all the cowboys who have appeared in John Ford’s westerns over the years.”
In retrospect, the courteous dignity with which Littlefeather, who has died aged 75, delivered his message, dressed in buckskin and traditional headbands, made it all the more powerful. In fact, awards show host Michael Caine criticized Brando for “letting some poor Indian girl get the boo” instead of doing it himself.
Marie Louise Cruz was born in Salinas, California, the daughter of Manuel Ybarra Cruz, who said she was part Apache and part Yaqui, and Geroldine Barnit, of French, German, and Dutch descent. They worked as saddlers and leather stampers. Marie herself took the name Sacheen Littlefeather after her father’s death.
At 23, she moved to San Francisco and began modeling while studying acting at California State University, Hayward, landing a few commercials. She joined the United Bay Indian Council and became more active in Native American affairs. In 1970, after being named “Miss Vampire USA” in a commercial for a television show, House of Dark Shadows, she was involved in the Native American occupation of Alcatraz Island. In 1972, Playboy magazine photographed her for a feature that was supposed to be called Ten Little Indians, which was cancelled. But after she became famous for her appearance at the Oscars, Playboy ran the broadcast on her own; She said she had been “young and stupid” when she posed nude, but now she agreed to the post because she needed the money to attend a theater festival in France.
He had first come into contact with Brando through Godfather director Francis Ford Coppola, his neighbor in San Francisco. She had sent a letter to Brando; Much later, when he called her at the radio station where she worked, he told her, “I bet you don’t know who that is,” and she replied, “It sure took you a long time to call. You earned ‘India time’ to hell.” They became friends and she was staying at his house on Mulholland Drive intending to watch the Oscars when Brando sat down and wrote his speech, then gave it to her to deliver, claiming he didn’t even touch the statuette.
He studied at the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco and had a few small roles in films shot in the city, including The Laughing Policeman (1973) and Freebie and the Bean (1974) and in the independent film Winterhawk (1975) as Pale Flower. . But she believed that Hollywood had blacklisted her for her actions at the Oscars.
In September of this year, the Academy hosted an “evening with Sacheen Littlefeather” and issued a formal apology for the “baseless and unwarranted abuse she received.” “I never thought she would live to hear this,” she said. “She feels as if the sacred circle was being completed before she left this life.” She had been undergoing cancer treatment for some time.
Littlefeather is survived by two sisters, Trudy and Rozalind, who have questioned her account of family heritage, saying that their father was not the abusive father that Sacheen had portrayed, and that he was Mexican without Native American blood. Trudy stated, “Sacheen didn’t like herself. She didn’t like being Mexican. So it was better for her to play someone else.”