To this day, Sacheen Littlefeather is remembered as the woman in the fringed dress who stood on stage at the 1973 Academy Awards and declined Marlon Brando's Oscar, citing Hollywood's depiction of native people and "recent events at Wounded Knee." Born Marie Cruz to a white mother and a father descended from the native tribes of Arizona, Littlefeather had adopted a tribal name as a teenager and, in 1969 to 1971, was one of the original occupiers of Alcatraz Island, which activists had claimed as unused federal land that should revert to native peoples. She was working as an actress and broadcaster in San Francisco when she wrote a letter to Brando inquiring about his interest in native American culture. Was he just another movie star looking to depict an Indian onscreen or was he truly interested in native rights? As questions of diversity swirl around this year's Academy Awards, The Globe and Mail spoke with Littlefeather over the phone from her home in San Francisco.
What response did you get to your letter?
It took him about a year to respond. I got a call at the radio station where I worked. He tried to disguise his voice but it didn't fool me. He said, "I bet you don't know who this is." And I said, "Of course I know, this is Marlon Brando. It sure as hell took you long enough to get back to me. You beat Indian time all to hell." He just laughed, from there we took off and became friends.
How did you respond when he first proposed that you decline the Oscar on his behalf?
I was very surprised. I wasn't planning on attending the Academy Awards. One day's notice: Get your hair combed and get something to wear and hop on a plane and do this. I said, "Are you joking?" because he was quite a joker. He loved to play practical jokes on people. He said, "No, no I am perfectly serious." He did warn me that maybe people were not going to take this in a good way. I had to be prepared.
So how did you decide what to wear?
I am not a person who owns an evening gown. I said, the only thing I have to wear is my powwow dress, so it was decided that was the appropriate thing to wear. It was a Northern-style buckskin dress.
Your tribal heritage is ...?
I'm Apache and Yaqui. I'm a Southwest Indian; don't ask me about fishing and canoeing.
So how did people react when you spoke?
Half booed and the other half listened, and said, "Let her speak." I was given 60 seconds by the producer to make that speech or I would be arrested. John Wayne was waiting backstage to take me off. He had to be restrained by six security men.
John Wayne was going to physically remove you?
Correct. I did not put up my fist in protest; I did not use profanity. I used politeness; eloquence and quiet strength were my tools of delivering a message about the rights of native American people to be employed in an industry where a stereotype was being put forth that was not healthy for us. We did not have jobs in the industry, we were excluded. Our civil rights were being violated at Wounded Knee in South Dakota [where activists were staging an occupation to protest corruption and breaches of treaty rights, and were exchanging fire with the FBI and the National Guard]. Marlon Brando was smart enough to know the Academy Awards were going to be seen by millions of people. All the world's media came to Wounded Knee and that made the FBI madder than hell, so they came at me with a vengeance.
They boycotted me; they went around to the production companies and said if you hire her we will shut you down. They planted lies about me and started malicious gossip. I was not allowed to be on any talk shows, Dick Cavett, Merv Griffin and the like. I was the subject, talked about maliciously, but I was not allowed to be on their shows.
Do you feel the depiction of native people in film and television has improved since then?
We need to be employed as directors and producers, actors and actresses portraying ourselves. I think in Canada there's a much better employment [for natives] in television then here in the United States. We don't have the opportunities you have in Canada. The producers of [the National Film Board of Canada documentary] Reel Injun have sent me some copies of [the television series] Mohawk Girls. I got a lot of laughs out of it. And I thought, go girls.
Leonardo DiCaprio has been nominated for an Oscar for his role in The Revenant, where he plays a white man who has a half-native son and also saves a native woman who has been kidnapped. Have you seen it?
Yes. I thought it was an excellent film. I thought Leonardo DiCaprio did an excellent job and I think he made an excellent statement at the Golden Globe Awards [where he said it is time to recognize native history and protect indigenous lands]. In the film, he was taught a lot of things by native people that helped him survive. Like when he took the guts out of the horse and hid in the horse to protect himself from the cold or knowing which roots to eat.
So, despite the #OscarsSoWhite controversy, you think there's some cause for optimism then, compared to 1973?
You are talking about an Academy Award [membership] who were elected till death, like the United States Supreme Court. Let's have some turnover here. You have the good old white boy network, a Clorox factory. There's practically no women and no people of colour. The Creator created diversity; that is what life is all about. Take a hint from the Creator, get with diversity.
How would you achieve that?
You have an old boy network that is principally white male. They are there until they die. There is no rotation there.
Term limits and all people represented. Not just the good old dominant society network. What about women? Hello. What about the other half of the population? This is insanity.
Being blocked out of the industry, did that end your career as an actor?
When one door shuts another door opens. I went on to get an education in health and nutrition and to work with many native peoples. I am working with death and dying at the present time in hospice work. That has been particularly beautiful for me, a great honour to work with those people who are crossing over to the spirit world. On their death bed nobody says I wish I had spent more time at the office.
But I have to ask you the same question: If Brando phoned you today, would you say yes?
Of course, somebody has to be the first person to ride in the front of the bus; Rosa Parks she rode in the front of the bus. Somebody has to be the first one to pay the price of admission and you are talking to that person.
This interview has been edited and condensed.