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

Sacheen Littlefeather has her long hair in pony tails and wears a traditional Native American dress. Two presenters are in formal clothes.
Sacheen Littlefeather, center, is flanked by presenters Roger Moore and Liv Ullman.
(Courtesy Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences)
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Before Chris Rock and Will Smith and the Oscars slap heard ‘round the world, there was Sacheen Littlefeather.

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Littlefeather became a household name overnight back in 1973 — a viral moment long before TikTok and other social media made those common. She did it by politely commanding the stage at the 45th Academy Awards, refusing to accept the Oscar on behalf of legendary actor Marlon Brando for his role in The Godfather and speaking out against the shameful treatment of Native Americans onscreen and off.

It is arguably the ugliest moment in Oscars history, in part because of racist overtones to the boos and the backlash to come, but also because of what Littlefeather said was taking place that night off stage, out of the camera’s eye:

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The late actor John Wayne — known for playing the cowboy up against Indians portrayed as savage — became “incensed” at Littlefeather.

“He attempted to assault me onstage. He had to be restrained by six security men,” Littlefeather told Jaqueline Stewart, Chief Artistic and Programming Officer of the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures, for LAist Studios’s The Academy Podcast.

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

Littlefeather says, “That is the most violent moment at the academy awards, which nobody knew about.”

But all TV audiences saw was an Oscar trophy being turned down, and, in the eyes of many, a ceremony hijacked by an activist.

“It was really surprising, shocking and seen as radical at the time,” said Jason E. Squire, USC professor emeritus at the USC School of Cinematic Arts, and editor of “The Movie Business Book.” (After all, rejecting an Oscar is quite rare.)

Why The Moment Mattered

There was another reason the moment was so earth shattering, said Brian Young, a Navajo filmmaker and author of the recent release “Healer of the Water Monster.”

“When Sacheen stepped in front of the camera, it was one of the first times Americans heard directly from an indigenous person… that we weren’t just relegated to Westerns, that we weren’t just relegated to the past…it was a huge step forward,” he said.

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At the time, it was commonplace for white actors to play Native Americans in film and on TV, and for many of those portrayals to be riddled with stereotypes of indigenous people as savages, relics of an earlier America.

Young, who wrote his thesis on Native American self representation hadn’t even been born yet when Littlefeather took her stand, but says he is in awe of the courage it must have taken to walk on the world’s stage that night.

Remember the media furor the morning after the Chris Rock/Will Smith slap? Multiply it. And then cast the harsh media spotlight on a young actress and activist in her mid 20s who didn’t have stylists, or media training or the ability to control the narrative. The backlash against Littlefeather was immediate.

While Brando would go on to movies such as “Apocalypse Now,” Littlefeather said she found herself “red listed,” as she put it, unable to find much work as an actress in Hollywood, and cruelly dragged by the media.

What She Actually Said

As we march toward the 50th anniversary of that unacceptance speech, Littlefeather reflected back to a moment some say was the first time politics were injected into an Academy Awards ceremony (but certainly not the last).

But first, the speech itself.

If you watch it now, it all seems so… polite.

Powerful, yes. But almost quaint by today’s standards.

Littlefeather was poised as she strode up to the podium, held up a hand as she refused to touch the trophy and then earnestly spoke to the audience. The young actor introduced herself as president of the National Native American Affirmative Image Committee, and then went on:

Sacheen Littlefeather stands in front of an Oscar statue wearing a traditional Native American dress
Sacheen Littlefeather at the Oscars
(Courtesy Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences)

“I’m representing Marlon Brando this evening and he has asked me to tell you… that he very regretfully cannot accept this very generous award,” she says, “And the reasons for this being are the treatment of American Indians today by the film industry.”

She says “excuse me” as some in the audience start booing, and then clapping kicks in. She then continues:

“And on television, in movie reruns and also with recent happenings at Wounded Knee. 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.”

That’s it.

Many Native Americans who were momentarily buoyed by Littlefeather’s actions were crestfallen by what followed.

“It was uplifting,” for a moment, said Suzan Shown Harjo, a Native rights activist and president of the Morning Star Institute, which fights for traditional and cultural rights for Native Americans. “Then there were the boos,” she said. And the harsh media uproar that followed. “It went from ‘This is fabulous’ to ‘They hate us if we step out of line.’”

Here are 11 things to know about Littlefeather — now 75 — who, long before #metoo, fearlessly took on Hollywood, and paid the price for it.

1. The story of her name

The daughter of a white mother and a father who was from the White Mountain Apache and Yaqui tribes from Arizona, she was born in Salinas, Ca., and named Marie Cruz at birth, with Cruz being her father’s tribal name. Her father was deaf, she said, and as a little girl she would perform and act out of necessity, in order to communicate with him. It was also laying the groundwork for the actress she wanted to be. She later adopted the name Sacheen Littlefeather as a young woman, to better reflect her heritage as she embraced social activism: She was among students who “occupied” Alcatraz back in late 60s and early 70s, part of an effort to raise awareness about injustices against Native Americans, including the government’s failure to abide by land treaties.

2. She experienced racism as a child…

“We were called the ‘N-word’ in grade school. And when I went to visit Mississippi, Alabama and the Southern states, I was made to drink out of the Black drinking faucets. And use the Black bathrooms,” Littlefeather recalled. This would become her fuel for a life of activism. She said:

“I saw the racial prejudice that was so thick in the south. And I felt heard, saw and knew that there were great injustices going on. Not only as an Indian person. But with all people of color…And I think this was very important to open my eyes and make myself bigger than where I came from.”

3. …And again as an adult trying to break into Hollywood

The Westerns churned out by Hollywood were filled with ugly stereotypes of Native Americans, she said. Worse: Even Native American filmgoers found themselves swept up in these stories, and often ended up identifying with the cowboys. (“Who wants to identify with the loser?” she asked).

Meanwhile, white performers routinely played Native Americans in films, while Native American actors couldn’t find work.

“We couldn't get jobs in the industry,“ Littlefeather said. “The movie industry basically looked like a Clorox factory. I mean, it was so white.” In her case, Littlefeather said she was told again and again that she was being passed over for roles because she was seen as too “exotic.”

4. She engineered her friendship with Brando

Littlefeather said she was living in San Francisco at the time, walking the hilly streets for exercise, when she realized that one of her neighbors was director Francis Ford Coppola. She also knew Brando as a well-known champion of Native Americans. “So I wrote a letter to him,” Littlefeather said. And then she boldly introduced herself to Coppola, and asked him to deliver it to Brando.

5. She wasn’t a groupie

A year went by without any sort of reply. Littlefeather was working as a public service director for a radio station when a mysterious call came in. The man asked for Littlefeather by name. But he wouldn’t give his own. “I bet you don’t know who this is,” the man said when Littlefeather finally answered. But there was no mistaking that distinctive voice. “Sure I do,” she recalled saying, “It’s Marlon Brando.”

That got a laugh from the actor. And if he was expecting the young woman to fawn all over him, he was mistaken. In fact, she chided him for taking so long to reply — even slower than “Indian time” she recalls joking. That got another laugh. And a genuine friendship was born, she said.

6. She tested Brando

Littlefeather said she wondered, in the beginning, if Brando was just playing the part of the Hollywood actor speaking out on behalf of indigenous people. But she learned he was genuinely interested in doing his part to champion Native Americans, whom he felt were misrepresented onscreen as savages, and mistreated off screen.

The friendship between the two “phone buddies” evolved to Littlefeather occasionally flying to Southern California to be a houseguest with Brando and his family. He may have been one of the most recognizable faces on the planet, but Littlefeather said the two bonded over their activism. “I really wasn’t interested in him as an actor,” she said. “I was interested in him as a fellow activist.”

7. The Academy Awards plot came together in mere hours

Brando called her with an idea, a plan to use Hollywood’s biggest night to raise awareness about Native Americans. The Oscars were being held the following day at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in Los Angeles. “That’s how fast it happened,” she said.

There was no time to get a gown, or need to do so either: Brando told her to wear her buckskin dress and moccasins and hair ties. “He chose my wardrobe for me.” When she arrived, “I was kept basically in the dark,” as a busy Brando and his secretary worked on an acceptance speech. Typed, it was eight pages long, Littlefeather recalled.

8. After she was threatened with arrest, she improvised the speech

Brando had already announced that he would not be attending the Oscars, and would be sending Littlefeather to accept if he won. Littlefeather said that when she arrived at the Oscars, the show’s producer threatened her with handcuffs and arrest and a lawsuit if she read the speech she held in her hands, or went over the allotted 60 seconds of speech time.

“I saw the police officers waiting in the wings to take me in handcuffs off the stage,” she said, adding that when Brando’s name was called, “I had to surmise all of those pages into my own words from the heart."

She also had to rise above what was happening backstage, where she said Wayne had to be restrained as he “attempted to assault me onstage and tear me apart. And I ignored all of that, ignored it totally. And did what I had to do."

Ethan Wayne, John Wayne’s son, issued a statement to us in response to this recollection, 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.” (Note: Marty Pasetta, who directed the Oscars broadcast that night, gave a similar account to Littlefeather's about Wayne’s backstage actions in an interview with UPI in 1984, which is quoted in his L.A. Times obituary.)

9. She took the podium alone but didn't feel alone

Littlefeather said she had to summon the courage of her ancestors to go onstage.

“I knew what I had to do, and I was praying beforehand the whole time for the strength and the courage to do what I needed to do. And my ancestors were with me. So I did not go up there by myself. I was in the company of my ancestors.”

10. She was ‘red listed,’ but not broken

Littlefeather said she that after that night, her career was destroyed and she was dragged by the media. Although she’d done some modeling and acting and had hoped to do much more, a friend who worked at a Hollywood studio called her shortly after her appearance at the Oscars, with stunning news: “The FBI were just here. And they told us that if we would ever hire you, they would shut us down, shut our production down.”

Littlefeather said there were so many lies spread about her.

“That I rented my buckskin dress. That I wasn't Indian. [That] I was a Mexican actress. That I had done this for money for Marlon Brando. That it was all a publicity stunt… nothing could be further from the truth…”

The uproar may have derailed any plans for Hollywood stardom. But it set Littlefeather on a lifelong path of activism: “I’m still standing,” she says.

11. She has lived long enough to see change

“The changes that have taken place over the last 50 years have been slowly but surely happening,” she said. Among other benchmarks, she points to the critically acclaimed “Reservation Dogs,” the documentary “Imagining the Indian,” the work of some of her favorite performers including Wes Studi, Tantoo Cardinal, as well as filmmaker Sterlin Harjo. “So I see our people branching out and this is all beautiful for me to behold… the spirit of indigenous people is being seen, being heard, being felt. The indigenous people that I know, not the Hollywood stereotype.”

About the Academy Museum podcast
  • The Academy Awards have been a source of iconic moments and cultural impact since the award ceremony began in 1929. The awards often reflect and amplify the political, economic, and the cultural movements of the time, and that’s what season 1 of The Academy Museum Podcast — And the Oscar Goes To... — is all about.

  • This 10-episode season includes revelatory interviews and in-depth conversations with Oscar winners, film artists, industry leaders, activists, and scholars, as well as archival audio and other exclusive content that will only be accessible by listening and subscribing wherever you get your podcasts.

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