Sacheen Littlefeather death: Who was the Native American activist booed off stage at the Oscars?

Sacheen Littlefeather at the Academy Awards ceremony to announce that Marlon Brando was declining his Oscar as best actor for his role in The Godfather, in 1973. The move was meant to protest Hollywood's treatment of American Indians (AP)
Sacheen Littlefeather at the Academy Awards ceremony to announce that Marlon Brando was declining his Oscar as best actor for his role in The Godfather, in 1973. The move was meant to protest Hollywood's treatment of American Indians (AP)

Sacheen Littlefeather, a Native American actor and activist who famously declined Marlon Brando’s Oscar, has died aged 75.

Littlefeather had been suffering from metastasised breast cancer.

She was blacklisted from Hollywood after gracing the Oscars stage on Brando’s behalf when he won Best Actor for The Godfather in 1973. In a powerful speech, Littlefeather rejected the trophy as part of the actor’s protest of Hollywood’s depictions of Native American people.

Littlefeather, then 26, was booed and later alleged that actor John Wayne had to be held back by security guards backstage from assaulting her. Other individuals backstage reportedly made offensive gestures.

In August, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences issued a formal apology to Littlefeather over her treatment.

For years, the Oscars largely steered clear of politics and social issues – Littlefeather was the first woman of colour, and the first indigenous woman, to use the Academy Awards platform to make a political statement.

She was also the first Native American woman to appear onstage at the Oscars, according to the Academy.

Who was Sacheen Littlefeather?

Born in 1946, Littlefeather was Native American: a mix of Apache and Yaqui on her father’s side, with a white mother.

Her parents met in Arizona – where mixed-race couples were still illegal – so they moved to Salinas, California, working as saddle-makers and leather-stampers.

“My biological parents were both mentally ill and unable to raise me,” she said in an interview with the Guardian last year. “I was a child who was abused and neglected. I was taken away from them at age three, suffering from tuberculosis of the lungs. I lived in an oxygen tent at the hospital, which kept me alive.”

She attributes memories of hitting her father with a broom to stop him from beating her mother as the catalyst for her becoming an activist. Littlefeather was taken away from her family home and raised by her maternal grandparents.

In her teens, Littlefeather had a breakdown, attempted suicide, and was hospitalised for a year.

It was also around this time that Littlefeather began visiting reservations in Arizona – areas of land governed by Native American tribal nations –  to discover her heritage.

Becoming increasingly interested in her history, she participated in the occupation of Alcatraz in 1970 – a 19-month-long protest, when 89 Native Americans and their supporters occupied Alcatraz Island, San Francisco.

She became head of her local affirmative-action committee for Native Americans, studying representation in film, TV, and sports. The group successfully campaigned for Stanford University to remove its offensive “Indian” sports-team symbol.

How did Littlefeather meet Marlon Brando?

An aspiring actress, Littlefeather began working as a public-service director at a San Francisco radio station and joined the Screen Actors’ Guild in her early 20s.

It was through this that she had her initial connection with Brando.

One of her neighbours at the time was Francis Ford Coppoola, who directed Brando in The Godfather, and whom Littlefeather began to get to know on her daily hikes of the San Francisco hills.

She knew Brando was interested in Native American rights and wanted to write a letter to him so, walking past Coppola’s house one day, she asked for Brando’s address. Eventually, Coppola gave it to her.

After hearing nothing for months, Brando phoned her one day at her radio station, and from then on they spoke regularly and became good friends.

She stayed at his house several times, but maintained they were never romantically involved.

What was the reaction to Littlefeather’s 1973 Oscars speech?

Addressing the 1973 Oscars audience in moccasins and an Apache buckskin dress, she explained that Brando, an activist for Native American rights, had written “a very long speech” but that she was unable to deliver it “because of time”.

She later said that the show’s producer, Howard W Koch, had threatened to have her arrested if she spoke for more than a minute.

Onstage, she called out offensive stereotypes of Native Americans perpetuated on film and television and drew attention to “recent happenings at Wounded Knee”, where a dispute over corruption at the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota led to a standoff with federal authorities.

Her speech was interrupted once by a mix of boos and applause, and she later recalled looking out at the overwhelmingly white audience and seeing the tomahawk chop, a racist gesture.

Waiting in the wings, according to Littlefeather and Oscars telecast director Marty Pasetta, was western star John Wayne, who allegedly tried to rush onstage and attack Littlefeather but was held back by six security officers.

When Clint Eastwood announced best picture, he joked, “I don’t know if I should present this award on behalf of all the cowboys shot in all the John Ford Westerns over the years.”

She later said that she visited Marlon Brando’s house after the Academy Awards and bullets were fired into his front door while they were talking.

“I went up there thinking I could make a difference,” she told People magazine in 1990. “I was very naive. I told people about oppression. They said, ‘You’re ruining our evening.’”

Littlefeather’s Oscar speech drew international attention to events at Wounded Knee – US authorities had essentially imposed a media blackout on the reality of the violence. It was a key moment in the struggle for Native American rights.

Native American filmmakers and producers also saw Littlefeather as a trailblazer, a crucial link in a movement towards more sensitive and accurate depictions of Native American life in television shows like Reservation Dogs, and films such as Prey.

It did little for her own career, however – she believed she was blacklisted by the Hollywood community.

Earlier this year, 49 years after the event, the Academy issued Littlefeather with an apology.

In response, the actor expressed happiness that her mistreatment had finally been acknowledged, stating: “This is a dream come true. It is profoundly heartening to see how much has changed since I did not accept the Academy Award 50 years ago.”