At the 1973 Academy Awards, Sacheen Littlefeather was only given 60 seconds to give her acceptance speech. In her brief acceptance speech, she stood up for Native American rights on national television, defended Marlon Brando’s honor by declining the best actor Oscar on his behalf, and was met with a mixture of loud boos and cheers.
Almost half a century later, Littlefeather is receiving a formal apology from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for the treatment she received during her speech and in the years that followed.
What Academy President Wrote to Littlefeather?
“The abuse you endured because of this statement was unwarranted and unjustified,” former Academy president David Rubin wrote in a letter to Littlefeather. “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.”
The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announced that Littlefeather will be making an appearance at the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures next month to discuss her historic Oscars performance and the future of Indigenous representation in film and television.
The upcoming event, during which Littlefeather will receive the apology in person, has been described by her as “a dream come true” in a statement. As she put it, “we Indians are very patient people” (in reference to the Academy’s apology to me, she added, “it’s only been 50 years!”). “No matter how serious things get, we must always maintain our sense of humor. Basically, it’s how we stay alive.”
Bird Runningwater, co-chair of the Academy’s Indigenous Alliance, and Virginia Carmelo, a descendant of the Tongva people who will lead a land acknowledgment, are just two of the many Indigenous artists who will be performing at the event for Littlefeather.
Littlefeather said, “It is profoundly heartening to see how much has changed since I did not accept the Oscar 50 years ago.”
Why Littlefeather’s Speech Earned High Applause?
Although he starred in “The Godfather,” Marlon Brando wasn’t there to accept the award for best actor. Instead of going himself, he had Littlefeather, who was an actress and activist at the time, go on his behalf and decline the award.
Sombrely introducing herself as an Apache woman and the president of the National Native American Affirmative Image Committee, Littlefeather took the stage in a buckskin dress and spoke quietly to the audience.
“(Brando) very regretfully cannot accept this very generous award, and the reasons for this being are the treatment of American Indians today by the film industry,” she said to a mix of boos and applause, pausing and appearing 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 will meet with love and generosity.”
Brando didn’t want to be associated with the federal government’s violent response to the American Indian Movement’s occupying of the South Dakota town of Wounded Knee. Littlefeather claimed that she made a promise to Marlon Brando not to touch the Oscar statuette.
She told the official Academy blog A.Frame, “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.”
Furthermore, she claimed that the conservative Western star John Wayne, who once said “Indians were selfishly trying to keep (the US) for themselves,” charged at her to “take (her) off the stage,” only to be restrained by security guards.
Littlefeather said that she had trouble finding work in the film industry after the ceremony because she had been “silenced.” After her Oscar success, she devoted much of her time and energy to activism and establishing a number of performing arts organizations for Indigenous actors.
Littlefeather claimed that she was supported by civil rights leaders like Coretta Scott King and Cesar Chavez, despite criticism from some in Hollywood who disagreed with her defenses of Native Americans. She told A. Frame, “I knew I had done the right thing,”.
Why Littlefeather Didn’t Give a Long Speech?
“I’m representing Marlon Brando this evening and he has asked me to tell you in a very long speech, which I cannot share with you presently because of time but I will be glad to share with the press afterward, that he very regretfully cannot accept this very generous award.
And the reasons for this being are the treatment of American Indians today by the film industry—excuse me—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.” ” Littlefeather said on Oscar night, March 27, 1973, when she took the stage and refused the statuette being presented by actors Roger Moore and Liv Ullmann.