Long before THE SLAP, or the great Moonlight mix-up, it was Sacheen Littlefeather who carried out the most famous Oscar moment in 1973. Donning a sparkly buckskin dress and moccasins, the activist declined Marlon Brando’s Oscar for The Godfather — and became the first Native American woman to ever speak at the Oscars.
She has died at age 75.
Sacheen Littlefeather was born in 1946, to an Apache and Yaqui father and a white mother. In her early 20s, she became involved in the Native American activism. Through those circles, she came to know Marlon Brando, who was involved with the American Indian Movement (AIM). Director Francis Ford Coppola made the introduction; he was a friend of Littlefeather’s.
When their paths crossed, the siege at Wounded Knee was ongoing: AIM supporters had seized and occupied the town on South Dakota’s the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, where the famous Wounded Knee massacre had taken place in 1890. Protestors called for the impeachment of tribal president Richard Wilson and criticized the United States’ failure to fulfill pacts with Native Americans and sought to reopen treaty negotiations. The occupation lasted for months, and Brando wanted to shed light on the ongoing issues.
So he and Littlefeather hatched a plan.
At the same time, in 1973, Coppola’s own film, The Godfather, was all the rage. And Brando, who starred as Vito Corleone was favored to win that year’s Oscar for Best Actor. But instead of accepting the prize, he sent Littlefeather to the Academy Awards in his place.
The young activist showed up in traditional dress and, when Brando’s name was called, took to the stage. “Accepting the award for Marlon Brando and The Godfather is Ms. Sacheen Littlefeather,” the announcer’s voice read. Only, Littlefeather did not accept the award.
After introducing herself on stage, Littlefeather politely declined the award. clutching a four-page speech written by Brando. Though she did not have time to read his message in full, she said: “The reason being are the treatment of Native Americans today by the film industry and on television, in movie re-runs, and also with recent happenings at Wounded Knee.”
Her statement was met with some applause but, more noticeably, loud jeers. In 202, she said that attendeed motioned toward her with the tomahawk chop as she exited. Multiple witnesses also said that John Wayne was waiting, restrained by six guards as he tried to attack Littlefeather. Later in the night, Clint Eastwood made light of the incident while presenting: “I don’t know if I should present this award on behalf of all the cowboys shot in all the John Ford Westerns over the years,” he said.
Following the Academy Awards, Littlefeather was something of a celebrity. In 1975, she played the role of Paleflower in Winterhawk. And though she found some work in acting and modeling, her carer never took off. She believes she was, likely, blacklisted in Hollywood.
But as Littlefeather grew older, she continued her activism continued. She became a core member of various Native American theater groups, education centers, and communities and, always, continued to protest. She played a role in the mascot changes of multiple high schools.
In 2022, the Academy issued Littlefeather a formal apology. In it, then-president David Rubin wrote:
“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.”From the Academy’s formal apology
Littlefeather welcomed the apology, calling it “a dream come true.” She added, “We Indians are very patient people—it’s only been 50 years!” She added, “We need to keep our sense of humor about this at all times. It’s our method of survival.” Littlefeather even went on to collaborate with the Academy for their Academy Oral History Projects and Academy Museum podcast.
Sadly, the collaboration could not last long. Littlefeather died of breast cancer at her home in Novato, California, on October 2, 2022. She was 75 years old.
Sacheen Littlefeather’s Full Speech
Sacheen Littlefeather later shared Marlon Brando’s speech in full. Listen to those words, above, and learn more about that here.