On September 17, nearly 50 years after the activist was harassed and treated badly for speaking out against how Native Americans were treated, the Academy Museum will honor him at an evening of healing and Indigenous celebration.
Sacheen Littlefeather was booed onstage at the Oscars in 1973. She was also heckled offstage with fake ululations and so-called “tomahawk chops” and was threatened with arrest and physical violence.
Nearly 50 years later, she will go back to the Academy as a special guest for an evening of reflection at the Academy Museum. She never thought that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences would apologize to her in a formal way, but they will.
“I was taken aback.” “I never thought I’d live to see the day when I’d be hearing this, experiencing this,” Littlefeather (Apache/Yaqui/Ariz.), now 75, says of receiving the Academy’s statement, which was first presented to her privately in June. “When I stood at the podium in 1973, I was alone.”
Back then, a 26-year-old Littlefeather took the stage at Marlon Brando’s request to decline the best actor award (for his role in The Godfather) on his behalf, in an instantly historic moment in both Oscar and live television history. She had two promises to keep: not to touch the statuette (as directed by Brando), and to limit her comments to 60 seconds (an order from show producer Howard Koch, who told Littlefeather minutes before the award presentation that he had security on hand to arrest her if she went past time).
“[Brando] very regretfully cannot accept this very generous award,” Littlefeather said, knowing she wouldn’t have time to read from the actor’s eight typed pages of prepared remarks. And the reasons for this are the current treatment of American Indians in the film industry [the audience begins to boo] — excuse me — and on television in movie reruns, as well as recent events at Wounded Knee. The American Indian Movement had occupied the South Dakota town of Wounded Knee a month before the Oscars to protest the continued mistreatment of Native Americans. At the time of Littlefeather’s televised appearance at the Oscars, the U.S. Department of Justice had put a media blackout on the standoff.
Littlefeather’s 60-second plea for justice elicited immediate and lasting personal repercussions. She claims that in the wings, John Wayne was restrained from storming the stage to physically attack her and that in the aftermath, her identity and integrity were called into question (the rumors were so pervasive that in 2012, Dennis Miller mocked Elizabeth Warren by referring to her as “as much Indian as that stripper chick Brando sent to pick up his Oscar”). Littlefeather says that before her famous moment, the government threatened to shut down any shows or talk shows that had her on them.
“The abuse you endured as a result of this statement was unwarranted and unjustified,” then-Academy president David Rubin wrote in the June 18 apology letter. “The emotional toll you’ve endured, as well as the cost to your own career in our industry, are irreparable.” For far too long, your bravery has gone unnoticed. We sincerely apologize and express our admiration for this. “
The apology statement will be read in full at the Academy Museum event honoring Littlefeather on September 17, where she will take part in a conversation with producer Bird Runningwater (Cheyenne/Mescalero Apache/N.M.), co-chair of the Academy’s Indigenous Alliance. Runningwater was the one who first approached Littlefeather on the Academy’s behalf, as part of the museum’s ongoing efforts to revisit the organization’s past and determine its future through a more expansive, inclusive lens. “Bird called me — on the phone, of course.” “He tried sending smoke signals, but they wouldn’t fit underneath the door,” Littlefeather jokes. Runningwater and fellow Academy Inclusion Advisory Committee member Heather Rae got to know the activist, which made it possible for her to record an episode for the Academy Museum podcast, which came out in June, and visual history for the Academy Oral History Projects, which will come out next month.
An Evening with Sacheen Littlefeather, which is free to the public with online reservations, will also include a land acknowledgment from Virginia Carmelo (Tongva/Southern California) and performances by traditional vocalist and singer Calina Lawrence (Suquamish/Wash.), the San Manuel Bird Singers (San Manuel/Calif.), Michael Bellanger (Ojibwe/Minn. and Kickapoo/Okla.) and the All Nation Singers and Dancers The evening will be run by Jacqueline Stewart, who is the director and president of the Academy Museum, and Earl Neconie, who is Kiowa/Oklahoma.
Littlefeather will be visiting the museum for the first time, and her photograph will be on display in the Academy Awards History gallery. The Bay Area native, who went on to study nutrition and traditional medicine and work in Mother Teresa’s AIDS hospice in San Francisco, never expected to reconcile with the organization that changed the course of her life nearly 50 years ago.
Stewart gave Littlefeather two gifts when she visited her home in June to record the visual history. “I thought to myself, it can’t be a pair of slippers.” “That’s not appropriate for the Academy,” Littlefeather recalls. Instead, she received a photograph of herself on the museum’s gallery walls (“right next to Sidney Poitier when he won the best actor for Lilies of the Field, so I’m in good company here”) and a framed letter from Rubin.
Littlefeather sat in bemused but attentive silence as Stewart read the letter aloud, listening to words she never expected to hear. “You know, I never stood up on stage in 1973 to accept any kind of award.” She said later, clearly still processing the apology but expressing herself with the same poise and candor the world has seen since first hearing her voice. The emotions hit Sacheen Littlefeather three minutes later after she reflected on and paid tribute to Native American filmmakers and artists making progress in Hollywood—like Runningwater, Rae, actor Wes Studi, and Reservation Dogs creator Sterlin Harjo—and she began to cry, clutching the framed letter to her chest.
“Yes, an apology is in order.” “As my Native friends have said, it’s long overdue,” says Littlefeather, who has metastasized breast cancer. “I could have died by now.” “All of my friends have died, including [activists] Dennis Banks, Russell Means, John Trudell, and [comedian] Charlie Hill.”
Last November, Littlefeather’s husband, Charles Koshiway (Otoe/Sac&Fox), died of blood cancer. They had been married for 32 years. “I know that what he wanted for me was always justice and reconciliation,” Littlefeather says, though when asked what she thinks of Koch and the other Oscar night participants who stood by as she was harassed, she laughs heartily: “I’m sure my ancestors spoke to them on my behalf when they got to the other side.” And I’m sure Mr. Charles went over there right away and spoke with them. I’m sure John Wayne was his first target. “
Littlefeather, on the other hand, claims to have followed a personal daily practice of “love, gratitude, and forgiveness.” “At long last, somebody is breaking down the doors,” she says of recent progress in Native American representation onscreen and among Hollywood’s storytellers. And I’m overjoyed that this is happening — even if I don’t curse like they do on “Reservation Dogs.”
Littlefeather concluded her speech in 1973 by saying, “I beg at this time that… in the future, our hearts, and our understandings will meet with love and generosity.”
It took 49 years, but those encouraging words have finally come true.
The Academy’s full statement of apology to Sacheen Littlefeather can be found below.
June 18, 2022
Greetings, Sacheen Littlefeather.
I’m writing to you today to thank you for taking part in the 45th Academy Awards on behalf of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
When you refused to accept Marlon Brando’s Oscar on his behalf in 1973, you made a powerful statement about how the film industry misrepresented and mistreated Native Americans. This statement still reminds us of how important respect and human dignity are.
The abuse you received as a result of this statement was unjustified and unwarranted. The emotional toll you’ve endured, as well as the cost to your own career in our industry, are irreversible. For far too long, your bravery has gone unnoticed. We sincerely apologize and express our admiration for this.
The Academy’s mission is to “inspire imagination and connect the world through film.” We can’t do that if we don’t help as many people as possible be represented and included in movies.
Today, nearly 50 years later, and with the help of the Academy’s Indigenous Alliance, we are steadfast in our commitment to ensuring that indigenous voices—the original storytellers—are visible and respected members of the global film community. We are committed to building an industry that is more open and respectful and uses art and activism as a force for change.
We hope you receive this letter in a spirit of reconciliation and recognition of your critical role in our organization’s journey. You will be indelibly etched in our history.