At the Academy Awards held fifty years ago, Marlon Brando was announced as the winner of the Best Supporting Actor race for his role as Don Corleone in The Godfather. But instead of the actor taking the stage, Native American activist Sacheen Littlefeather, then age 26, stepped up to decline his Oscar on his behest. His reasons, she read from his notes, were partly because of the “treatment of the Native Americans by the film industry…and on television in movie reruns.”
Having punctured what is usually an evening of Hollywood self-congratulation and gratitude, for half a century she has regularly appeared in every annual round-up of “wildest moments at the Oscars!,” and in easy pop-culture punchlines. Long overlooked in these glib references was the painful impact of the boos and anger she received in the moment, and the long-term harassment, threats, and Hollywood blacklisting that the aspiring actress endured for decades. Now, in an act of contrition over what she has endured since her moment on the Oscars stage, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has delivered to her a formal apology, and invited her to be guest of honor at an event at its museum, according to The Hollywood Reporter.
“I was stunned,” Littlefeather, now 75, told the Reporter. “I never thought I’d live to see the day I would be hearing this, experiencing this. When I was at the podium in 1973, I stood there alone.”
Back in 1973, the reaction to her speech was immediate and explosive. Many in the Academy Awards audience booed and mocked her, and one of the show producers warned that she would be arrested if she went over the 60 seconds they had allotted her. John Wayne had to be restrained from physically removing her from the stage.
“The abuse you endured because of this statement was unwarranted and unjustified,” former Academy president David Rubin wrote in the organization’s apology letter, which was initially given to Littlefeather in June. “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.”
Prior to the 1973 Oscars, Littlefeather had a handful of film roles, and had met with the FCC to discuss better representation for minorities on TV. (In the documentary Sacheen: Breaking the Silence, Littlefeather said she was “blacklisted” from the film industry for giving the speech.) When she took the stage at the Academy Awards, it was against the backdrop of the 1973 Wounded Knee occupation, where Oglala Lakota activists (and others in the American Indian Movement) occupied Wounded Knee, South Dakota for 71 days. Their goal was to get the American government to recognize treaties from the previous two centuries, and the resulting armed standoff led to two of the indigenous activists losing their lives: Brando also had Littlefeather cite this occupation as another of his major motivations for refusing his award.
That March 27, 1973, Oscar night, when she took the stage and refused the statuette being presented by actors Roger Moore and Liv Ullmann, Littlefeather said, “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—excuse me—and on television in movie reruns, 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.”
On September 17’s Academy event, Littlefeather, whose family lineage comes from the Apache and Yaqui, will be speaking with Bird Runningwater, who heads the Oscars’ Indigenous Alliance.