Sacheen Littlefeather (Apache/Yaqui/Ariz.), the Native American actress and activist who took to the stage at the 1973 Academy Awards to reveal that Marlon Brando would not accept his Oscar for The Godfather, has died. She was 75.
Littlefeather died at noon Sunday at her home in the Northern California city of Novato surrounded by her loved ones, according to a statement sent out by her caretaker. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which reconciled with Littlefeather in June and hosted a celebration in her honor just two weeks ago, revealed the news on social media Sunday night.
Littlefeather disclosed in March 2018 that she had been diagnosed with stage 4 breast cancer, and it had metastasized in recent years.
Brando had decided to boycott the March 1973 Oscars in protest of how Native Americans were portrayed onscreen as well as to pay tribute to the ongoing occupation at Wounded Knee, in which 200 members of the American Indian Movement (AIM) faced off against thousands of U.S. marshals and other federal agents in the South Dakota town.
After presenters Liv Ullmann and Roger Moore listed the nominees for best actor and Ullmann called out Brando’s name as the winner, the telecast cut to Littlefeather, then 26 and wearing a traditional Apache dress, walking to the stage from her seat at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion as the announcer explained, “Accepting the award for Marlon Brando and The Godfather, Miss Sacheen Littlefeather.”
Littlefeather, however, held up her right hand to decline the statuette proffered by Moore as she reached the podium and told the Chandler audience and the 85 million viewers watching at home that Brando “very regretfully cannot accept this very generous award.”
Speaking in measured tones but off-the-cuff — Brando, who told her not to touch the trophy, had given her a typed eight-page speech, but telecast producer Howard Koch informed her she had no more than 60 seconds — she continued, “And the reasons for this being are the treatment of American Indians today by the film industry … and on television in movie reruns, and also with recent happenings at Wounded Knee.”
Littlefeather’s remarks were met in the building by a smattering of boos as well as applause, but public sentiment in the immediate aftermath of her appearance was largely negative. Some media outlets questioned her Native heritage (her father was Apache and Yaqui and her mother was white) and claimed she rented her costume for the ceremony, while conservative celebrities including John Wayne, Clint Eastwood and Charlton Heston — three actors who had starred in many a Western — reportedly criticized Brando and Littlefeather’s actions.
As she was becoming an indelible part of Oscar lore, Wayne “was in the wings, ready to have me taken off stage,” she told the Los Angeles Times in 2016. “He had to be restrained by six security guards.” That may not have been the case, an investigation showed.
Regardless, nearly 50 years later, the Academy issued her an apology.
“The abuse you endured because of this statement was unwarranted and unjustified,” then-AMPAS president David Rubin wrote to her in a 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.”
“I was stunned. I never thought I’d live to see the day I would be hearing this, experiencing this,” Littlefeather told The Hollywood Reporter. “When I was at the podium in 1973, I stood there alone.”
Born Marie Louise Cruz on Nov. 14, 1946, in the coastal Northern California city of Salinas, Littlefeather was primarily raised by her mother’s parents. She began exploring her Native identity at California State University in Hayward and participated in the Native occupation to attempt to reclaim Alcatraz Island in 1969, and it was her fellow activist friends who renamed her.
Shortly thereafter, Littlefeather received a full scholarship to study acting at San Francisco’s American Conservatory Theater. “Dancing and acting was an escape from reality,” she told The Native American Times in 2010.
She got some work in radio and TV ads (including as Miss Vampire USA for a Dark Shadows soap opera promotion) but found it a struggle to land substantive parts in Hollywood: “Americans liked the blonde Sandra Dee look … I got speaking parts in Italian films because they liked the exotic.”
In 1972, she participated in a planned Playboy shoot called “Ten Little Indians” that was scrapped before publication when the occupation at Wounded Knee began in February 1973. But after Littlefeather’s Oscar appearance, Playboy printed her photos as a standalone feature, further…