Activist actressSacheen Littlefeather

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An actress in San Francisco, she was introduced to actor Marlon Brando by a neighbor, director Francis Ford Coppola. She and Brando got along well, and about a year later the actor asked her for a favor: to appear at the 1973 Academy Awards ceremony and decline his Oscar for Best Actor should he win. She attended the ceremony accompanied by Brando’s secretary, Alice Marchak. When the ceremony’s producer, Howard Koch, saw the 739-word speech Brando had written out for her to read, he told her “You can’t read all that!” He agreed to let her go on and summarize the speech after she promised to “not make a scene.”

Brando won, and Littlefeather took the stage, refused to touch the statue as instructed by Brando, and condensed the actor’s thoughts into her allotted 60-second time slot:

Hello. My name is Sacheen Littlefeather. I’m Apache and I am president of the National Native American Affirmative Image Committee. I’m representing Marlon Brando this evening, and he has asked me to tell you in a very long speech which I cannot share with you presently, because of time, but I will be glad to share with the press afterwards, that he very regretfully cannot accept this very generous award. And the reasons for this being are the treatment of American Indians today by the film industry [mixture of boos and applause from the audience] — excuse me… and on television in movie re-runs, and also with recent happenings at Wounded Knee. I beg at this time that I have not intruded upon this evening, and that we will in the future, our hearts and our understandings will meet with love and generosity. Thank you on behalf of Marlon Brando. [applause]

Littlefeather backstage at the Oscars with Brando’s speech, which she read to gathered reporters. It was printed in full in the next day’s New York Times. (Photo: CC2.0 via UCLA Library Special Collections)

As she was led off stage, she says some in the wings met her with racist “tomahawk chops” toward her. A security guard tried to keep her from the press area, but presenter Roger Moore, who was escorting her, ran interference as PR man Dick Guttman pushed her into an elevator. As the doors were closing the security guard, Guttman said, ran toward them “yelling, I swear to God, ‘Where you taking that Indian?’ Behind him, as the doors slide slowly shut, we see Roger smiling and giving us a gentle wave.” Nice, but she was “blacklisted” by Hollywood.

In June 2022, the Academy delivered an apology to Littlefeather for the racist reaction from Hollywood: “The abuse you endured because of this statement was unwarranted and unjustified. 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.” Littlefeather said when she was delivered a copy of the apology, “I was stunned. I never thought I’d live to see the day I would be hearing this, experiencing this,” she said. “When I was at the podium in 1973, I stood there alone.” In September, the Academy held a celebration in her honor at the Academy Museum, which she attended to give her formal response: “I am here accepting this apology, not only for me alone but as acknowledgment, knowing that it was not only for me, but for all of our nations that also need to hear and deserve this apology tonight. Look at our people [about half the audience, who stood]. Look at each other and be proud that we stand as survivors, all of us. 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.” Sure enough, their hearts met with love and generosity. Sixteen days later — October 2 — after a career as a film producer and hospice worker, Littlefeather died from breast cancer. She was 75.

22 October Update

On 22 October 2022 in the San Francisco Chronicle, Diné/Dakota Indian writer Jacqueline Keeler wrote of her documentation of alleged “‘Pretendians’ — non-Native people who I or other Native American people suspect or proved to have manufactured their Native identities for personal gain. Littlefeather was among them.” Her proof? Littlefeather had two sisters, who say most of Littlefeather’s “Native American” origin story was a lie.

They still refer to her as Sacheen Littlefeather (and explain where “Sacheen” almost certainly came from). Why? “Sacheen did not like herself,” one said. “She didn’t like being Mexican. So, yes, it was better for her that way to play someone else.”

Littlefeather claimed to be White Mountain Apache, but her father (from which side she claimed she got her Native American heritage), who was born in California, is of Mexican heritage, and his family tree shows no ties whatever to any Native American tribe. Worse, “White Mountain Apache tribal officials I spoke with told me they found no record of either Littlefeather or her family members, living or dead, being enrolled in the White Mountain Apache.”

There’s more, and hopefully the original essay will stay online at the source: Sacheen Littlefeather was a Native American icon. Her sisters say she was an ethnic fraud. Though just in case, it’s preserved in the Internet Archive too.

23 October Note

Bizarrely, the industry newspaper Variety described Littlefeather as “the activist who famously accepted Marlon Brando’s Oscar.” Seriously? She accepted the Oscar that she refused to even touch? In fact, when she refused the Oscar on Brando’s behalf, it was instead awarded to Jack Lemmon for his role in Save the Tiger. Frankly, Variety — in this case written by an actual editor at the publication — has no idea of what it’s talking about.

The article also claims that “several Native American writers and activists” say Littlefeather’s sisters “thought they were of Native American ancestry until [column author Jacqueline] Keeler informed them they weren’t.” That claim is not supported in the Chronicle-published essay, where the sisters flatly insist that their father was not of Native American ancestry. There was no confusion evident on their part to be disabused of.

From This is True for 9 October 2022