Natalie Pesqueira

Staff Writer

Sacheen Littlefeather, Native American actress, model and activist died at the age of 75 on October 3, 2022. Littlefeather was an Apache and Yaqui Native American who made history at the 45th Academy Awards in 1973 when she declined Marlon Brando’s Best Actor Award on his behalf, which he received for his performance in The Godfather. She was the first Native American woman to stand on the Oscar stage. Brando declined the Oscar to protest Hollywood’s portrayal of Native Americans. His protest was to bring attention to the Wounded Knee occupation in South Dakota. 

When Littlefeather went onstage to decline the award, she was met with hesitant applause and booing from the audience. Thirty years after the incident took place, Littlefeather claimed that as she walked offstage, actor John Wayne had to be restrained by six security guards to prevent him from attacking her and pulling her offstage. Littlefeather later claimed that it was “the most violent moment that had ever taken place at the Academy Awards.” Fact checkers later tried to debunk whether or not Wayne actually tried to attack her. There is still confusion in the industry over what actually happened between her and Wayne the night of the Oscars. 

Sacheen Littlefeather was born Marie Louise Cruz on November 14, 1946. Her mother was white and her father was a member of the White Mountain Apache and Yaqui descent. When she was in college, Littlefeather began exploring her Native American ancestry while she was a student at California State College at Hayward, which has since been renamed California State University, East Bay. After participating in the occupation of Alcatraz, a nineteen month long occupation by 89 Native American students, she took the name Sacheen Littlefeather after a name her father used to call her. 

With aspirations to become an actress, Littlefeather participated in several beauty pageants and booked radio gigs and television commercials, which led to her becoming a member of the Screen Actors Guild. She was also a model, having appeared in a spread called “Makeup for Minorities” in the San Francisco Examiner

Accounts of how Littlefeather and Brando met vary, but Littlefeather said that the two met through her neighbor, Academy Award winning director Francis Ford Coppola. Coppola was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Director for The Godfather at the 45th award ceremony, having worked with Brando on the film. 

After Littlefeather declined Brando’s Oscar award, the Academy banned accepting a role by proxy. Littlefeather was then met with setbacks and mistreatment from Hollywood after the awards, and she soon stopped pursuing roles as an actress. She claimed she was “red listed” from Hollywood, and was the subject of controversies surrounding her Native American ancestry. She continued with her activism throughout her life, co-founding the American Indian Registry for Performing Arts and sitting on the board of directors of the American Indian AIDS Institute of San Francisco.

Nearly 50 years after the 1973 awards show, the Academy issued an official apology to Littlefeather in June 2022 after the years of ridicule and mistreatment she faced following the awards. The Academy Museum sent a letter to Littlefeather from the Academy’s president, David Rubin. In the letter, he said her acceptance speech was “a powerful statement that continues to remind us of the necessity of respect and the importance of human dignity.” He continued, “[t]he abuse you endured because of this statement 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.” In response to the letter, Littlefeather said “[r]egarding the Academy’s apology to me, we Indians are very patient people — it’s only been 50 years! We need to keep our sense of humor about this at all times. It’s our method of survival.”

Just two weeks before her death, the Academy Museum hosted An Evening with Sacheen Littlefeather, “a special celebration of live Native American performances featuring a long-awaited statement of apology from the Academy.” The evening consisted of a formal apology from the Academy; a land acknowledgment of the Tongva Gabrieleno Tribe, and performances by Native American artists handpicked by Littlefeather. “I am here accepting this apology not only for me alone, but as an acknowledgment, knowing that it was not only for me but for all of our Nations, who all so need to hear and deserve this apology,” Littlefeather said.

In an email sent to the New York Times, her family confirmed that she died of breast cancer surrounded by friends and family. The Academy announced Littlefeather’s death on Twitter, with the quote “When I am 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. I remain Sacheen Littlefeather. Thank you.” 

Image Courtesy of Frazen Harrison/Getty Images

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In collaboration by Quaker Campus staff members.
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