Sacheen Littlefeather speaks about breast cancer status: ‘I’m crossing over soon to the spirit world’

·3-min read

Sacheen Littlefeather spoke about her cancer status at the recent Academy Awards event held in her honour, after she formally accepted an apology over her hostile treatment at the 1973 Oscars.

The actor and activist, 75, first announced she had been diagnosed with metastasized breast cancer in a 2021 Facebook post, but discussed her current status to the audience in attendance of Saturday’s (17 September) event titled “An Evening with Sacheen Littlefeather”.

“I’m crossing over soon to the spirit world,” she said as she bestowed personal gifts to a handful of individuals, including longtime friend Earl Neconie (Kiowa/Okla), musical leaders Michael Bellanger (Ojibwe/Minn and Kickapoo/Okla), Steve Bohay (Kiowa/Okla) and Joe Tohonnie (Apache/Ariz) and Academy Museum director and president Jacqueline Stewart.

“And you know, I’m not afraid to die. Because we come from a we/us/our society. We don’t come from a me/I/myself society. And we learn to give away from a very young age. When we are honoured, we give,” Littlefeather added.

In June, the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences extended an apology to Littlefeather over the hostile reception she received at the awards ceremony 49 years ago.

In response to the apology letter issued by then-Academy president David Rubin, Littlefeather said: “I am here accepting this apology. Not only for me alone, but as acknowledgement, knowing that it was not only for me but for all of our nations that also need to hear and deserve this apology tonight.

“Now, I would like all the Indian people in this audience to stand. Look at our people, look at each other and be proud that we stand as survivors, all of us.”

Sacheen Littlefeather (Getty / YouTube)
Sacheen Littlefeather (Getty / YouTube)

She continued: “Please, when I’m 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.”

In 1973, the actor and activist graced the stage on Marlon Brando’s behalf after he was awarded Best Actor for his portrayal of Vito Corleone in The Godfather.

In a powerful speech, she rejected the award as part of Brando’s protest of Hollywood’s depictions of Native American people. The gesture also intended to highlight the events at Wounded Knee, South Dakota, where a massacre of Native Americans took place in 1890, and where protests were ongoing.

At the time, her remarks were met with some sounds of support, as well as boos from those who disagreed with her taking a political stand at the ceremony.

According to Littlfeather, John Wayne took particular offence to her stance. The Western film star played a cowboy at odds with Indigenous characters in many of his films.

“During my presentation, he was coming towards me to forcibly take me off the stage, and he had to be restrained by six security men to prevent him from doing so,” she told The Guardian in 2021.

At the time that the apology was issued earlier this summer, the actor expressed her happiness at having her mistreatment be acknowledged.

“This is a dream come true,” she said in a statement. “It is profoundly heartening to see how much has changed since I did not accept the Academy Award 50 years ago. I am so proud of each and every person who will appear on stage.”

Littlefeather, who starred in films The Laughing Policeman, The Trial of Billy Jack and Johnny Firecloud, has previously stated that after rejecting Brando’s Oscar, she was essentially blacklisted from the entertainment industry. After appearing in Shoot the Sun Down in 1978, Littlefeather didn’t act in an onscreen project again.

She next featured in the documentary Reel Injun in 2009, before next appearing as herself in the documentary short Sacheen: Breaking the Silence in 2018.