On March 27, 1973, the Academy Awards witnessed a historic moment that would resonate for half a century. A 26-year-old Native American woman, Sacheen Littlefeather, took the Oscars stage, braving racial slurs and gestures. Despite the controversies that ensued, she stood firm, believing she had done the right thing. This article delves into the events surrounding Marlon Brando’s Best Actor win and the subsequent apology extended to Littlefeather five decades later.
Marlon Brando’s Iconic Win
Marlon Brando, acclaimed for his portrayal of Vito Corleone in 1972’s “The Godfather,” earned a Best Actor nomination at the 45th Academy Awards. His victory seemed inevitable, but the unexpected occurred when Sacheen Littlefeather, adorned in a buckskin dress, refused the award on his behalf. Brando boycotted the ceremony, protesting Hollywood’s treatment of Native Americans.
The Refusal Speech
Littlefeather, armed with an eight-page speech from Brando, faced constraints from producers, limiting her speech to 60 seconds. In those moments on stage, she conveyed Brando’s regretful refusal, citing the mistreatment of American Indians in the film industry and recent events at Wounded Knee. The speech met with booing and racial gestures, highlighting the challenges she faced.
Fallout: Littlefeather’s Struggle
Littlefeather’s brave act came at a cost—her acting career faced condemnation, leading to a Hollywood blacklist. The federal government even threatened to shut down nationally aired productions involving her. Despite the backlash, she redirected her efforts toward activism, garnering support from civil rights icons like Cesar Chavez and Coretta Scott King.
The Long-awaited Apology
Nearly 50 years later, the Academy issued a formal apology to Littlefeather. Former president David Rubin acknowledged the unjust abuse she endured, expressing admiration for her courage. The apology, though overdue, brought tears to Littlefeather’s eyes, marking a significant moment of recognition.
In a 2022 interview, Littlefeather emphasized that her actions transcended loyalty to Brando. Reflecting on the 1973 Oscars, she spoke of courage, honor, grace, dignity, and truthfulness—qualities echoing her Indigenous heritage. Her commitment extended beyond personal connections, aiming to address racial prejudice and discrimination against all Native people.
The Academy Museum of Motion Pictures extended an invitation for a healing and Indigenous celebration event in Littlefeather’s honor. This event, held on September 17, 2022, featured Native artists and acknowledged her challenging 1973 Oscars experience.
Unveiling a Controversy
Tragically, the apology came just in time, as Sacheen Littlefeather passed away on October 2, 2022. However, her legacy faced posthumous controversy when her two sisters claimed she was not Native American, branding her a “fraud.”
The Shocking Claims
In an investigative report by The San Francisco Chronicle, Littlefeather’s sisters, Trudy Orlandi and Rosalind Cruz, asserted their Spanish heritage, denying any tribal ties. This revelation contradicted Littlefeather’s identification with Yaqui Indian and White Mountain Apache heritage.
Littlefeather’s Final Words
Littlefeather, in her last interview, reiterated her motivation for taking the Oscars stage—speaking the truth on behalf of all Native people. Her dedication to this cause remained unwavering despite the posthumous challenges to her heritage.
The story of Sacheen Littlefeather intertwines activism, bravery, and controversy. Her refusal of Brando’s Oscar marked a pivotal moment in Oscars history, leading to a belated but heartfelt apology from the Academy. Despite posthumous challenges to her identity, her commitment to addressing Native American issues remains an enduring legacy.