Sacheen Littlefeather revealed to be Mexican despite Native American claim
It was the performance of a lifetime.
In 1973, Sacheen Littlefeather took to the stage at the Oscars on behalf of Marlon Brando to turn down his award for the Godfather.
Dressed in traditional woven clothes, the activist for Native American rights was the perfect messenger for Brando’s statement excoriating Hollywood - and America’s - treatment of indigenous people.
But just weeks after her death, Littlefeather’s sisters have come forward in a bombshell interview to say she was not Native American at all.
In fact, they told the San Francisco Chronicle, she was Hispanic.
“It’s a lie,” Trudy Orlandi told Jacqueline Keeler, herself a Native American activist. “My father was who he was. His family came from Mexico. And my dad was born in Oxnard. California.”
“It is a fraud,” added sister Rosalind Cruz. “It’s disgusting to the heritage of the tribal people. And it’s just … insulting to my parents.”
Both women said they identified as Hispanic and insisted that the family had no Native American ancestry.
“I mean, you’re not gonna be a Mexican American princess,” Ms Orlandi added.
“You’re gonna be an American Indian princess. It was more prestigious to be an American Indian than it was to be Hispanic in her mind.”
Littlefeather died earlier this month in California aged 75. She was described as an “Apache activist and actress” in a New York Times obituary.
To the end, Littlefeather insisted she was Native American.
“I spoke my heart, not for me, myself, as an Indian woman but for we and us, for all Indian people,” she said in one of her final interviews. “I had to speak the truth. Whether or not it was accepted, it had to be spoken on behalf of Native people.”
But Ms Keeler carried out her own research which revealed that Littlefeather’s claim to White Mountain Apache ancestry was without foundation.
She found that Littlefeather was born as Maria Louise Cruz in Salinas, California, the daughter of Manuel Ybarra Cruz and Gertrude Barnitz.
She had claimed Native American heritage through her father.
But Ms Keeler found no links with any tribe in his family history. Instead, the records showed the family’s roots were in a village which is now part of Mexico City.
The sisters were also incensed by Littlefeather’s portrayal of a poverty-stricken and violent upbringing.
Neither attended the funeral and were only made aware of their older sister’s death by an online news site.
“Sacheen did not like herself,” Ms Orlandi said.
“She didn’t like being Mexican. So, yes, it was better for her that way to play someone else.”
Littlefeather’s appearance at the 1973 Oscars was one of the most controversial incidents in the 94-year history of the Academy Awards.
Brando had been named best actor for his performance in The Godfather. Instead of accepting the award in person, he sent Littlefeather, then aged 26, to represent him.
When Roger Moore prepared to hand over the statue on stage, she raised her hand to decline the honour.
Instead, after introducing herself as president of the Native American Affirmative Image Committee, she said Brando “respectfully” could not accept the award because of the treatment of American Indians by Hollywood.
There was uproar with some attendees booing – while others applauded. A furious John Wayne had to be restrained by six security guards.
Later in the ceremony, she was mocked by Clint Eastwood.
By the time she appeared on the Oscar stage, Littlefeather had already embarked on a modelling career, with publicity photographs featuring her in tribal dress.
Littlefeather’s treatment at the ceremony remained a running sore with the Academy of Motion Pictures for nearly 50 years, which finally apologised just weeks before her death.
At an event the Academy held in her honour in Los Angeles in September, Litteleather joked about the long wait, saying “we Native Americans are very patient people”.
“I am accepting this apology not only for me alone, but an acknowledgement not only for me, but all of our [Native American] nation,” Littlefeather added.
“Our nation needs to hear this apology.”