Reunion with Sacheen Littlefeather’s shocking performance at the 1973 Oscars

Sacheen Littlefeather with Marlon Brando’s testimony at the 1973 Oscars.Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty

In the annals of amazing Oscar moments — the streak, the slap, the envelope mix-up — none stands as stunning as what happened on March 27, 1973, the night Marlon Brando sent Dingeen Littlefeather to have his award for to reject the best actor “The Godfather.” The 26-year-old activist took the stage in a fringed suede dress and moccasins, held a dismissive palm to the statuette, and identified herself as an Apache and as President of the National Native American Affirmative Image Committee. The look in her eyes was steady but pleading, that of an uninvited guest who meant no harm. When she explained that Brando’s reasons for rejecting the award were Hollywood’s abuse of Native Americans and the standoff in Wounded Knee, South Dakota, there were loud boos and isolated cheers. “Thank you on behalf of Marlon Brando,” she concluded and walked away, leaving the audience at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion (and millions of viewers at home) in shock.

The backlash that began during her speech did not abate. Moments later, Raquel Welch opened the Best Actress envelope and hissed, “I hope they don’t have a reason.” (The winner was Liza Minnelli, and she didn’t.) The media tried to locate Brando and failed— his answering machine said: “It may sound silly, but I’m not here” – despite reports that he was on his way to the injured knee. The reaction to his protest, at least from the white press and white Hollywood, was overwhelmingly negative. “Actors can step on a soapbox,” Rock Hudson said. “But I think it’s often most eloquent to remain silent.” (Hudson’s lifetime in the closet, and his death, out AIDStwelve years later, makes that remark particularly tragic.) Academy President Daniel Taradash said, “Despite the fact that he said he tried hard not to be rude, Brando was rude.” One columnist fought back against Brando’s “tribune play cloaked in hypocrisy,” calling the stunt “pretentious and demeaning of an industry that has made him a millionaire.”

Meanwhile, details emerged about the mysterious young woman Brando had sent in his stead. Littlefeather was born Marie Cruz, the press reported, and had joined the Native American occupation of Alcatraz Island in San Francisco a few years earlier. She was also a Hollywood “bit actress” who had worked as a model, appeared in a film as an “Italian prostitute” and was once named Miss American Vampire in a promotional contest for the horror film House of Dark Shadows. The tabloids spread a false rumor that she wasn’t really Native American — just another Hollywood contender — and her closeness to the more lanky side of show business cast a shadow over her cause. “The industry she’s been mocking so loudly from her pulpit in the center of the music hub,” chuckled another columnist, “happens to be an industry she’s been in for years.” It was further revealed that Littlefeather had posed nude in 1972 playboy, in a series of mounted “tribal beauties” that Hugh Hefner eventually turned down. (“Well,” she told a newspaper at the time, “everyone says black is beautiful — we wanted to show that red is beautiful, too.”) Months after the Oscars bestowed her fame, playboy ran the three-page spread from Littlefeather, who said she was using the fee to attend a theater festival in Europe. When the 1973 Academy Awards went down in history, the whole thing cemented itself into a pop culture punch line: cleaning actor, fake Indian, cheesy Hollywood freak show.

But what if it wasn’t? That summer, the Academy took the notable step of sending Littlefeather a formal apology letter for receiving her speech. “The abuse you suffered because of that statement was unjustified and unjustified,” it said. Reflecting an academy attuned to inclusion following #OscarsSoWhite, the apology brought renewed attention to the incident, which from the distance of forty-nine years can easily be seen in an entirely different light. Hollywood’s portrayal of Native Americans was deeply racist for decades, and it’s still lean. Brando’s action, which sparked decades of political awards ceremonies (both good and clumsy), was, we can now admit, pretty much punk rock. Standing on a stage that had never welcomed anyone like her, Littlefeather was confident and brave, and the mockery she endured was patently sexist and racist. If it happened now, her performance would certainly set Twitter on fire in what some would denounce as “wokism” – but many more would celebrate her as a role model. In 1973 Littlefeather was more talked about than heard. Almost half a century later, are we finally ready to listen?

Earlier this month, the Academy capped their reconciliation with Littlefeather with an event at the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures. The museum, which opened last year, has endeavored to address the demographic blind spots that have plagued the industry (and the Oscars) with exhibits on early black filmmakers and stereotypes in classic animation. An exhibition entitled Backdrop: An Invisible Art features the painted backdrop of Mount Rushmore from North by Northwest; One wall of text discusses Alfred Hitchcock’s craft, while another reminds us that the memorial itself is a violation of the Lakota’s claim to the mountain, as promised in the 1868 Treaty of Fort Laramie. The event, which was livestreamed, began with a land acknowledgment by a Tongva woman. Indigenous artists handpicked by Littlefeather performed a “Honoring Song” and an intertribal powwow dance. Finally, the museum’s director, Jacqueline Stewart, announced “the moment we’ve all been waiting for”: an appearance by Littlefeather, who is now seventy-five years old.

Dressed in brightly colored native garb, her hair parted in the middle, Littlefeather emerged in her wheelchair to ecstatic applause. Her eyes were still big and soulful. She sat across from Bird Runningwater, the co-chair of the Academy’s Indigenous Alliance—something that definitely didn’t exist in 1973—and spoke softly and deliberately, but she was in good spirits. “Well I made it after fifty years,” she said, adding, “We’re a very patient people.”

In a nearly four-hour video interview released at the same time as the event, Littlefeather described her “hostile” early life. Her mother was white; Her father, who was deaf and a violent alcoholic, was of White Mountain Apache and Yaqui descent. Her parents worked as saddlers, which taught her at an early age to “recognize a horse’s butt”. As a young child, she had tuberculosis and spent time in a hospital oxygen tent. Her parents both suffered from mental illness and were unable to care for her, she recalled, so at the age of three she was taken to live with her maternal grandparents; This led to a “frozen need for acceptance that would never be satisfied”. Her grandparents raised her Catholic, and her introduction to films was religious fare like The Song of Bernadette and The Robe. In elementary school, she received racist taunts and sat at the back of the class. Around the age of nineteen, she heard voices and had a recurring nightmare that her father was coming to “knife” her. She attempted suicide and was placed in a Bay Area mental institution for a year. Through ‘psychodrama’, she relived her early traumas and began crawling out of a ‘deep black hole’. She was diagnosed with schizophrenia (she was later recategorized as schizoaffective bipolar) and has been under treatment ever since.

The ugly relationship with her father had cut her off from her Indigenous heritage, and it wasn’t until she joined the intertribal occupation of Alcatraz, which lasted from late 1969 to mid-1971, that she learned “the bright side of things,” meeting activists and elders and learning to “reclaim what has been lost.” She modeled for department stores and did a few ads, but “I got tagged with the word ‘exotic’,” she recalls. It was activism – including a successful campaign to get Stanford University to drop its “Indian” sports mascot – that gave it its purpose. She’d noticed Hollywood stars were interested in the Alcatraz protests, including Brando and Anthony Quinn, but some seemed to be using the activists to research roles. One day, while walking through the hills of San Francisco, she came across Francis Ford Coppola, who had directed Brando in The Godfather, and asked for his help in delivering a “very sincere letter to Brando asking him whether his interest in us is genuine.” Some time later, while Littlefeather was working at radio station KFRC, a phone call came through for her. It was Brando. “It really took you long enough,” she told him.

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