The first time Sacheen Littlefeather encountered the Academy, in 1973, she was booed onstage at the Oscars, heckled with mock ululations and so-called “tomahawk chops” offstage, and threatened with arrest and physical assault.
Nearly half a century later, she will return to the Academy as an invited guest of honor for an evening of reflection at the Academy Museum, featuring something she never dared to imagine: a formal apology from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
“I was stunned. I never thought I’d live to see the day I would be hearing this, experiencing this,” Littlefeather (Apache/Yaqui/Ariz.), now 75, tells The Hollywood Reporter of receiving the Academy’s statement, which was first privately presented to her in June. “When I was at the podium in 1973, I stood there alone.”
Back then, in an instantly historic moment in both Oscars and live television history, a 26-year-old Littlefeather took the stage at Marlon Brando’s behest to decline the best actor award (for his role in The Godfather) on his behalf. She had two promises to keep: not to touch the statuette (Brando’s instructions), and to keep her comments to 60 seconds (an order from show producer Howard Koch, who told Littlefeather minutes before the award presentation that he had security on hand to arrest her if she went past time).
“[Brando] very regretfully cannot accept this very generous award,” Littlefeather said in her improvised non-acceptance speech, knowing she would not have time to read from the actor’s eight typed pages of prepared remarks. “And the reasons for this being are the treatment of American Indians today by the film industry [the audience begins to boo] — excuse me — and on television in movie reruns, and also with recent happenings at Wounded Knee.” (A month before the ceremony, the activist organization American Indian Movement had occupied the South Dakota town of Wounded Knee to protest the sustained mistreatment of Native Americans, a standoff that at the time of Littlefeather’s televised appearance at the Oscars was under a U.S. Department of Justice-imposed media blackout.)
Littlefeather’s 60-second plea for justice resulted in immediate and enduring personal backlash. She says that in the wings, John Wayne had to be restrained from storming the stage to physically attack her, while in the aftermath, her identity and integrity were impugned (the rumors were so abiding that in 2012, Dennis Miller mocked Elizabeth Warren by calling her “as much Indian as that stripper chick Brando sent to pick up his Oscar”). Littlefeather, who had acted in a few films before her infamous moment, says that the federal government threatened to shut down any talk shows or productions that put her on the air.
“The abuse you endured because of this statement was unwarranted and unjustified,” then-Academy president David Rubin wrote in the organization’s apology letter, dated June 18. “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.”
The statement of apology will be read in full at the Sept. 17 Academy Museum event honoring Littlefeather, who will participate in a conversation with producer Bird Runningwater (Cheyenne/Mescalero Apache/N.M.), co-chair of the Academy’s Indigenous Alliance. It was Runningwater who first reached out to Littlefeather on behalf of the Academy, as part of the museum’s ongoing efforts to revisit the organization’s past and determine its future through a more expansive, inclusive lens. “Bird gave me a call — on the phone, of course. He tried to send smoke signals but they wouldn’t fit underneath the door,” jokes Littlefeather. Runningwater and fellow Academy Inclusion Advisory Committee member Heather Rae cultivated a relationship with the lifelong activist, paving the way for her to record an episode for the Academy Museum podcast, released in June, as well as a visual history for the Academy Oral History Projects, to be released next month.
An Evening with Sacheen Littlefeather, which will be free to the public via online reservations, will also feature a land acknowledgement from Virginia Carmelo (Tongva/S. Calif.) and performances by traditional vocalist and singer Calina Lawrence (Suquamish/Wash.), the San Manuel Bird Singers (San Manuel/Calif.), Michael Bellanger (Ojibwe/Minn. and Kickapoo/Okla.) and the All Nation Singers and Dancers and Steve Bohay (Kiowa/Okla.) and the Sooner Nation Singers and Dancers, as well as remarks from Rubin and incoming Academy president Janet Yang, Academy CEO Bill Kramer and Assemblymember James Ramos (Serrano/Cahuilla/So. Calif.). Academy Museum director and president Jacqueline Stewart and Earl Neconie (Kiowa/Okla.) will emcee the evening.
It will be Littlefeather’s first visit to the museum, which has her photograph displayed in its Academy Awards History gallery. The Bay Area resident, who went on to study nutrition and traditional medicine and worked in Mother Teresa’s AIDS hospice in San Francisco, never expected a reconciliation with the organization that altered the trajectory of her life nearly half a century ago.
When Stewart visited her home in June to record the visual history, she presented Littlefeather with two gifts. “I was thinking, it can’t be a pair of slippers. That’s too casual for the Academy,” Littlefeather recalls. Indeed: She instead received a photograph of her appearance on the Museum’s gallery walls (“Right next to Sidney Poitier when he won best actor for Lilies of the Field, so I’m in good company here”) and the framed letter from Rubin.
As Stewart read the letter aloud, Littlefeather sat in bemused but attentive silence as she listened to words she never thought she’d hear. “You know, I never stood up onstage in 1973 for any kind of accolades. I only stood there because my ancestors were with me, and I spoke the truth,” she said afterward, clearly still processing the apology but expressing herself with the same poise and candor she has demonstrated since the world first heard her voice. It wasn’t until three minutes later, after she reflected on and paid tribute to the Native American filmmakers and artists making progress in Hollywood — like Runningwater, Rae, actor Wes Studi and Reservation Dogs creator Sterlin Harjo — that the emotions hit, and Sacheen Littlefeather began to cry, clutching the framed letter to her chest.
“Yes, there’s an apology that’s due. As my friends in the Native community said, it’s long overdue,” says Littlefeather, who is living with metastasized breast cancer. “I could have been dead by now. All of my friends — [activists] Dennis Banks, Russell Means, John Trudell, [comedian] Charlie Hill — are gone.”
Littlefeather’s husband, Charles Koshiway (Otoe/Sac&Fox), has also passed, of blood cancer last November. They were together 32 years. “His spirit is still here with me, and I know that what he wanted for me was always justice and reconciliation,” says Littlefeather, although when asked what she thinks of Koch and the other Oscar night participants who stood by as she was harassed, she laughs heartily: “When they got to the other side, I’m sure that my ancestors spoke to them on my behalf. And I’m sure Mr. Charles went over there and had a talk with them immediately. I’m sure his first target was John Wayne.”
But for Littlefeather herself, she says she has abided by a personal daily practice of “love, gratitude and forgiveness.” And she has been heartened by the very recent progress in Native American representation onscreen and among Hollywood’s storytellers: “At long last, somebody is breaking down the doors. And I’m so very happy this is happening — even though I don’t swear like they do on Reservation Dogs.”
In her concluding words back in 1973, Littlefeather said, “I beg at this time that … in the future, our hearts and our understandings will meet with love and generosity.”
It took 49 years, but those hopeful words have finally become prescient.
Read the Academy’s full statement of reconciliation to Sacheen Littlefeather below.
June 18, 2022
Dear Sacheen Littlefeather,
I write to you today a letter that has been a long time coming on behalf of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, with humble acknowledgment of your experience at the 45th Academy Awards.
As you stood on the Oscars stage in 1973 to not accept the Oscar on behalf of Marlon Brando, in recognition of the misrepresentation and mistreatment of Native American people by the film industry, you made a powerful statement that continues to remind us of the necessity of respect and the importance of human dignity.
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.
We cannot realize the Academy’s mission to “inspire imagination and connect the world through cinema” without a commitment to facilitating the broadest representation and inclusion reflective of our diverse global population.
Today, nearly 50 years later, and with the guidance of the Academy’s Indigenous Alliance, we are firm in our commitment to ensuring indigenous voices—the original storytellers—are visible, respected contributors to the global film community. We are dedicated to fostering a more inclusive, respectful industry that leverages a balance of art and activism to be a driving force for progress.
We hope you receive this letter in the spirit of reconciliation and as recognition of your essential role in our journey as an organization. You are forever respectfully engrained in our history.
With warmest regards, David Rubin
President, Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences