Indigenous Rights Activist Sacheen Littlefeather Dies at 75

Marlon Brando sent her to decline his Best Actor award in protest over Hollywood’s depiction of Native Americans

Sacheen Littlefeather
Sacheen Littlefeather speaking at the Academy Awards in 1973 Bettmann via Getty Images

Sacheen Littlefeather, who emerged onto the national scene when she appeared in Marlon Brando's stead to decline his Academy Award for The Godfather, died on Sunday at 75, reports Variety.

At the March 1973 Oscars, Littlefeather, an Apache and Yaqui actor and activist, wore a buckskin dress and moccasins and solemnly explained that Brando “very regretfully” could not accept the award due to the “treatment of American Indians today by the film industry.”

Some members of the audience clapped. Others booed. Unflustered, Littlefeather noted that Brando’s rejection of the Oscar was also prompted by Native American activists’ occupation of Wounded Knee in South Dakota, which had started several weeks earlier.

“I beg at this time that I have not intruded upon this evening,” Littlefeather concluded, “and that … in the future, our hearts and our understandings will meet with love and generosity.”

Nearly 50 years after her speech—an act of protest that has endured as one of the most memorable moments in Oscars history—the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences issued a formal apology to Littlefeather

On the night of her speech, Littlefeather endured more than boos. A producer threatened to have her arrested if she spent more than 60 seconds at the podium. John Wayne, the iconic Western film star who made troubling statements about Native Americans and Black Americans during his lifetime, had to be physically restrained by security guards when he tried to rush the stage while Littlefeather was speaking. Backstage, people shouted war cries and mimed racist gestures. 

The ramifications of her speech were lasting, she believes. Speaking to the Guardian’s Steve Rose last year, Littlefeather said she was swiftly blacklisted in Hollywood: “I couldn’t get a job to save my life. I knew that J. Edgar Hoover had gone around and told people in the industry not to hire me.”

In a statement, the Academy revealed that its former president, David Rubin, had issued a formal “statement of reconciliation” to Littlfeather in June.

“The abuse you endured … was unwarranted and unjustified,” Rubin wrote. “The emotional burden you have lived through and the cost to your own career in our industry are irreparable. For too long the courage you showed has been unacknowledged. For this, we offer both our deepest apologies and our sincere admiration.”

“Regarding the Academy’s apology to me, we Indians are very patient people—it’s only been 50 years!” said Littlefeather, per the statement. “We need to keep our sense of humor about this at all times. It’s our method of survival.”

In the early 1970s, Littlefeather was working as a public service director at a San Francisco radio station, while also heading a local affirmative action committee for Native Americans. Littlefeather lived in the same neighborhood as Francis Ford Coppola, who directed The Godfather, and they had a friendly relationship. 

“I used to hike the hills of San Francisco every day,” she told the Guardian. “He’d be sitting on his porch, drinking iced tea.” 

When Littlefeather heard that Marlon Brando had been advocating for Native American rights, she wrote him a letter and asked Coppola to share the actor’s address. “I wanted to know if [Brando] was for real,” she told the Guardian. Months later, Brando called her and they struck up a friendship. 

On the day before the 1973 Oscar ceremony was due to take place, Brando asked Littlefeather if she would attend the event as his representative. “I was just floored,” Littlefeather said in an interview with the Academy earlier this summer. “I had no idea what to expect. I'd never been to the Academy Awards in my life.”

Their plan was fairly haphazard. On the evening of the ceremony, Littlefeather waited for Brando to finish typing an eight-page speech that she was to read on his behalf, arriving at the event just minutes before the presentation of the Best Actor award. When she was told that she would have only 60 seconds to speak if Brando won, she knew there would be no time to read the actor’s words. She would have to improvise. 

“Of course, my heart was rushing,” Littlefeather recalled in the interview. “And then, they called out his name. So, I took a couple of deep breaths, and I said a prayer. And I walked up that stairway, and tried not to fall over my buckskin fringes and be as graceful as I possibly could. And I prayed that my ancestors would be with me.”

Following her historic appearance at the Oscars, Littlefeather studied holistic health and nutrition, later working in Native American communities across the United States and at Mother Teresa’s AIDS hospice in San Francisco. Recent years have been difficult for Littlefeather—she died of metastasized breast cancer—but reconciliation with the Academy is, she said in the Academy’s statement, “a dream come true.” 

“It is profoundly heartening,” she added, “to see how much has changed since I did not accept the Academy Award 50 years ago.”

In an earlier interview with Variety, she said, "When we die, we know that our ancestors are coming to give. We know that we’re going to that spirit world from where we came. We take this as a warrior with pride and not defeat, looking forward to joining our ancestors who are going to be there with us at our last breath and they’re going to welcome us into that world on the other side and have a big celebration for us.”