Sacheen Littlefeather was 26 years old in 1973 when she made history by taking the stage at the 45th Academy Awards on behalf of Marlon Brando to refuse his best actor Oscar for The Godfather.
Wearing traditional regalia, including a buckskin dress and moccasins, the Apache and Yaqui model and actor told a stunned crowd that Mr. Brando had asked her to explain he could not accept the award because of “the treatment of American Indians today by the film industry… and also with recent happenings at Wounded Knee,” where Indigenous activists from the American Indian Movement were in an ongoing standoff with the FBI in South Dakota.
After she spoke on stage, she received boos, racist gestures and threats of violence. John Wayne tried to physically assault her and had to be restrained by six security guards.
In interviews in the years that followed, Ms. Littlefeather said that she saw media reports that lied about her heritage, she was blacklisted in Hollywood and received death threats. Her acting career ended soon after the Oscars. She continued her work as an activist and pursued a career in healthcare.
On June 18, nearly 50 years after her historic speech, Ms. Littlefeather, now 75, received a letter from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences apologizing for the abuse she received. The letter was made public on Monday when the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures announced it would be welcoming her for “An Evening with Sacheen Littlefeather,” a program “of conversation, reflection, healing, and celebration” on September 17.
Ms. Littlefeather’s determination to share the truth about Indigenous peoples’ representation in Hollywood had a lasting legacy for many Indigenous women, youth and artists. But reactions from Indigenous people in the film and television industry to the apology have been mixed.
Jesse Wente, the Co-Executive Director of the Indigenous Screen Office, said that the apology was a long time coming, but that its real outcome is, he hopes, Ms. Littlefeather herself feels better about what happened.
“It is important to acknowledge when you have harmed and to accept responsibility for that. But I think we also in our communities have a lot of experience with apologies that are then not necessarily followed up with actions,” Mr. Wente said.
Angie-Pepper O’Bomsawin, Mohawk and Abenaki writer, director and producer, said that Ms. Littlefeather deserved an apology 50 years ago.
“It’s shocking to me that it took that long for an apology for doing something that I find it hard to believe anybody can see any wrong in. Especially when it was at the request of a highly respected man in the industry,” Ms. O’Bomsawin said.
Sarain Fox, an Anishinaabe dancer, activist, television host and content producer said it’s important that Ms. Littlefeather received the apology while she’s still alive.
“I was just so happy that the world gets to be a part of that apology while she’s still here. So we celebrate her legacy while she’s still here, not as something that happens after she’s gone,” Ms. Fox said.
In an interview for the Smithsonian Institutes’ National Museum of the American Indian in September, 2020, Ms. Littlefeather said that she had terminal breast cancer that had metastasized in her right lung.
“I want to make the most of my life. I have a good attitude, lots of gratitude, endless latitude and I’m enjoying it all every single day with a great sense of humour to go along with it, because you can either look down at your shoes or you can look up at the sky,” Ms. Littlefeather said in the interview.
In his apology letter, David Rubin, then president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, said that the abuse Ms. Littlefeather endured “was unwarranted and unjustified,” and the emotional burden and cost on her career in Hollywood “are irreparable.”
“We hope you receive this letter in the spirit of reconciliation and as recognition of your essential role in our journey as an organization. You are forever respectfully engrained in our history,” Mr. Rubin wrote.
In a statement, Ms. Littlefeather said that “regarding 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.”
Mr. Wente said the power of Ms. Littlefeather’s speech at the Oscars was the spotlight she shown on the harms Hollywood had done to Indigenous people since the beginning of film, and that she “put a pin in the fantasy balloon.”
Ms. Fox said that Ms. Littlefeather’s bravery has been an inspiration for many Indigenous youth and women.
“She inspired and reminded us all that we belong, that our stories belong in the mainstream, and that we have the right to stand up for ourselves,” she said.
Ms. O’Bomsawin, said that Ms. Littlefeather’s eloquence and class at the Oscars was, “for every little dark girl out there whose voice shakes when she speaks up for injustice, that was a big day.”
The biggest impact that Ms. Littlefeather’s speech at the Oscars had, Mr. Wente added, was the precedent it set.
“If you see a political speech on any award show in 2022, or 2023, it’s because Sacheen Littlefeather did that then,” he said.
The Oscar’s moment did not have immediate change in Indigenous representation in Hollywood, Mr. Wente said, as a shift was already occurring because of greater awareness from the American Indian Movement and the Civil Rights Movement. Those changes have been happening more recently.
Ms. O’Bomsawin said that Indigenous people are finally taking up space in the film and television Industry.
“We’re seeing some really great projects come to light,” she said. “The only way to move forward is up for us, that’s for sure. I’m just hoping that this is the beginning of something beautiful.”
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