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Sacheen Littlefeather, Who Declined Marlon Brando's Oscar In 1973, Has Died At 75

An image of Native American woman Sacheen Littlefeather, wearing tradition clothing. She stands in front of a large golden Motion Picture Academy Oscar statue.
Sacheen Littlefeather in 1973. Marlon Brando sent her to the Academy Awards to decline his best actor win for "The Godfather."
(Courtesy Academy Museum
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©Globe Photos/ZUMA Press)
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Sacheen Littlefeather Has Died

Updated Oct. 2: Sacheen Littlefeather has died at the age of 75. Her death came just weeks after she accepted a formal apology in person at a tribute in Los Angeles.

The Academy initially issued that apology by letter shortly after the Native American activist spoke to LAist Studios for the podcast And The Oscar Goes Too.... earlier this year. In that far-reaching conversation, Littlefeather talked at length about her memories of that night, how she came to know Marlon Brando and what she experienced since.

Then, the Academy held an evening honoring Littlefeather on Sept. 17. Read on for details of that event, and her wishes on how she wants to be remembered.

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Nearly 50 years ago, Marlon Brando refused to attend the Academy Awards ceremony where he was up for top acting honors for his role in The Godfather. Instead, he sent Sacheen Littlefeather to the ceremony with instructions to refuse the Oscar, should his name be called.

On Saturday, Sept. 17, at sold-out celebration of Native American culture at the Museum of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the Academy apologized formally for what happened next in that 1973 ceremony.

Her response to the apology:

"I wanted to say that in 1973, I was a 26 year-old indigenous woman, a member of the Screen Actor's Guild. Very few people of color were finding their way through an impractical society that deliberately set out to erase the existence and diversity of Native Peoples. Through genocide, oppressions and the unwavering efforts for Indian self determination our generation remained hard at work."

She went on to say she "knew the impact and the importance of representing all Native People on that night." Littlefeather said said it was critical to "interrupt the negative interpretation of Native American people by the film, television and sports industries."

She said she accepted the apology not only for herself but also on behalf of everyone else who deserved the apology. She asked all Native People in the audience to stand and addressed them:

"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."

Watch The Live Event

Marlon Brando's Request

To voice his anger over Hollywood’s habitually racist depictions of indigenous people and to draw attention to the American Indian Movement’s occupation of the South Dakota town of Wounded Knee, Brando sent Littlefeather, an activist, actress and model, to the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion stage to decline his best actor trophy.

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Read more: Sacheen Littlefeather Talks About What Really Happened Before, During And After Rejecting Marlon Brando’s Oscar

“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,” said Littlefeather, whose father was from the White Mountain Apache and Yaqui tribes of Arizona.
“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, will meet with love and generosity. Thank you on behalf of Marlon Brando.”

The Reaction In 1973

Some in the audience booed, others mocked her with tomahawk chops and John Wayne, according to Littlefeather and the ceremony’s director and producer, had to be restrained from trying to rush the stage and accost her.

[Note: While reporting a previous story on this recollection, Ethan Wayne, John Wayne’s son, issued a statement to us, saying in part, “...it’s hard for me to imagine this telling of events, because the man I knew believed in and defended everyone’s right to freedom of speech right up until his death in 1979.”]

Littlefeather subsequently struggled to find work, was harassed and targeted in tasteless smears like this from Dennis Miller, talking about Sen. Elizabeth Warren: “She’s about as much Indian as that stripper chick Brando sent to pick up his Oscar for The Godfather.”

In June this year, Littlefeather talked extensively about her experience on LAist Studio’s Academy museum podcast “And The Oscar Goes To....”

Listen To Her Account

42:10
1973: "Marlon Brando Cannot Accept This Very Generous Award"

Soon after the release of that podcast, which is co-produced with the Academy Museum, then-Academy president David Rubin, wrote a letter to Littlefeather:

“The abuse you endured…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 our sincere admiration.”

Speak The Truth

At Saturday's event, Littlefeather recounted how she was initially denied entry into the Oscar ceremony because she was wearing traditional buckskin dress, and then was told she would be “put in handcuffs” and “arrested and put in jail” if she spoke for more than 60 seconds (Brando had given her a six- to seven-page speech to read, which she did not do).

“I went up there, like a proud Indian woman, with dignity, with courage, with grace, and with humility,” Littlefeather told the museum audience.

“And as I began to walk up those steps, I knew that I had to speak the truth. Some people may accept it, and some people may not.”

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