Sacheen Littlefeather, the actor and activist who refused Marlon Brando's 1973 Academy Award for "The Godfather" on his behalf in an indelible protest against Hollywood's portrayal of Native Americans, died. She was 75 years old.
Littlefeather's niece, Calina Lawrence, confirmed that she died peacefully on Sunday, surrounded by loved ones at her home in Marin County, California. The cause was breast cancer, the family said.
The Appearance of Littlefeather at the 1973 Oscars would become one of the most famous moments of the award ceremony. Dressed in a buckskin dress and loafers, Littlefeather took the stage as host Roger Moore read out Brando's name as the best actor winner.
Speaking to the audience, Littlefeather cited stereotypes of Native Americans in film and ongoing week-long protest at Wounded Knee in South Dakota as the reason for Brando's absence. She said that Brando had written "a very long speech" but that time restricted her from making brief comments. Producer Howard Koch had allegedly warned Littlefeather, then 26, that he would arrest her if she spoke for more than a minute.
"I pray at this time that I did not intrude on this night and that we will in the future, our hearts and understandings will meet with love and generosity," Littlefeather said, becoming the first Native American woman to appear on stage at the Oscars. .
Though brief, to the point, and polite, Littlefeather's appearance was controversial, receiving a mixture of applause and jeers from the audience. In the years that followed, Littlefeather endured considerable scorn and abuse for the way he was talked about, he said.
"I spoke from the heart," he told The Associated Press days after the Oscars. “Those words were written in blood, perhaps my own blood. I felt like Christ carrying the weight of the cross on his shoulders.”
Recently, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences officially addressed the treatment Littlefeather received after her appearance. In August, the film academy apologized to Littlefeather. Two weeks ago, he held an evening of "conversation, healing and celebration" in her honor.
"The abuse he endured because of this statement was unwarranted and unwarranted," academy president David Rubin wrote in a letter to Littlefeather. “The emotional toll you have experienced and the cost of your own career in our industry are irreparable. For too long the courage you showed has gone unrecognized. For this, we offer our deepest apologies and sincere admiration."
Littlefeather responded in a statement: "We Indians are very patient people, it's only been 50 years!"
"We need to keep our sense of humor about this at all times," he added. “It is our method of survival.”
Littlefeather was born Marie Cruz on November 14, 1946, in Salinas, California. Her father was from the White Mountain Apache and Yaqui tribes and her mother was white. They were both saddle makers. They separated when Littlefeather was four years old, after which she was largely raised by her grandparents. She took the name Sacheen Littlefeather after high school. Sacheen, she said, that's what her father had called her; her last name comes from a feather that she often used in her hair.
Littlefeather's entry into acting was matched by her activism. She was part of the Native American occupation of Alcatraz Island in 1969, he said, and began performing at the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco in the early 1970s.
Littlefeather met Brando through her neighbor, “The Godfather” director Francis Ford Coppola. She had known Brando for about a year before he called her the night before the 1973 ceremony, invited her over to her house and asked her to attend in her place.
Political speeches at the Oscars they were still a rarity, and some in attendance saw the short speech as a breach of decorum, and one that raised a topic not everyone was eager to consider.
“I don't know if I should present this award on behalf of all the cowboys photographed in all of John Ford's westerns over the years,” Clint Eastwood said later that night, while handing out the best picture award. Presenting the best actress, host Raquel Welch joked, "I hope they don't have a cause."
“I went there thinking I could make a difference,” Littlefeather told People magazine in 1990. “I was very naive. I told people about the oppression. They said, 'You're ruining our evening.'”
Littlefeather described the overwhelmingly white crowd as "a sea of Clorox." She said some members of the audience made a so-called "chop tomahawk" and then shot at Brando's house.
Over the years, Littlefeather added to the tradition, describing John Wayne, who was in the wings of the theater as he spoke, as "ready to be carried off the stage." In 2016, Littlefeather told the Los Angeles Times that Wayne "had to be held down by six security guards." Film scholar Farran Smith Nehme has since investigated the alleged incident. and has found no evidence that it happened.
But it was indisputable that Littlefeather's life was altered by those 60 seconds. After the Oscars, her credentials as an actress and activist — Littlefeather had posed in 1972 for Playboy, which she defended as proof that "red was beautiful" — were questioned in the tabloid press and elsewhere. Her opportunities as an actress were exhausted. Ella Littlefeather said that she was on the "red list" of the industry. She dropped out of show business and, in the decades that followed, she worked primarily as a Native American activist.
At the academy event last month, Littlefeather, then in a wheelchair, said that despite all the difficulties she faced after the Oscars, she would do it all over again.
"I was representing all the indigenous voices, because we've never been heard in that way before," Littlefeather said. “And if you had to pay the price of admission, that was fine, because you had to open those doors, like Yosemite Sam. Someone had to do it."