At the 45th Academy Awards, Littlefeather was booed, threatened to be arrested, put in handcuffs and jailed, while John Wayne was held back by six security guards
At the 45th Academy Awards in 1973, a national audience watched as Sacheen Littlefeather (Apache/Yaqui/AZ) walked onto the stage to refuse the Oscar for best actor on behalf of Marlon Brando who had been nominated for his performance in Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather.
As the 26-year-old Littlefeather waited backstage to make her announcement, accompanied by Brando’s personal secretary Alice Marchak, Littlefeather — who was holding a lengthy 739-word speech Brando had asked her to read — a producer told Littlefeather that she could not read the entire speech and instead would only be allotted 60 secs.
Littlefeather, who was wearing the buckskin dress she wore to powwows in the San Francisco Bay area, said a producer had walked up to her and told her the speech was too long and she could not read it.
Littlefeather told the Academy’s news site A.Frame, “He said, ‘Well, you can’t read that. We only have so much time left. And, if you read that, I will have you arrested. You will get 60 seconds or less. And you see those police? I will have them officially arrest you. I will have you put in jail. I will have you put in handcuffs. You will be embarrassed. Marlon will be embarrassed. So, you have 60 seconds or less if he should win.’”
When Littlefeather refused the award on Marlon Brando’s behalf, she was met with loud boos and some applause. She says she saw mouths all over the audience drop open with surprise. She also said the audience was lacking in any diversity.
Actor John Wayne, visibly angered by Brando’s refusal to accept the Oscar due to the mistreatment of American Indians in film and Littlefeather’s presence, was held back by security. People in the audience were also doing the Tomahawk Chop.
Littlefeather told the Academy, “[John Wayne] did not like what I was saying up at the podium. So, he came forth in a rage to physically assault and take me off the stage. And he had to be restrained by six security men in order for that not to happen. It was interesting because some people were giving me the tomahawk chop. I thought, ‘This is very racist. Very racist indeed.’”
The Academy issues an apology 50 years later, and offers a ‘celebration of healing’
On Monday August 15, 2022 the former President of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences offered an official apology called a “statement of reconciliation” directly to Sacheen Littlefeather.
The letter itself was dated June 18, 2022, but it was released on the same day the Academy announced a celebratory event they call “An Evening with Sacheen Littlefeather, a very special program of conversation, reflection, healing, and celebration.”
In an interview with Hollywood Reporter, Littlefeather said, “I never thought I’d live to see the day I would be hearing this, experiencing this … When I was at the podium in 1973, I stood there alone.”
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The letter of apology from David Rubin, the former President of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences stated:
STATEMENT OF RECONCILIATION
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,
President, Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences
A celebration of healing
In a press release, the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures announced an event to honor Sacheen Littlefeather.
The release was announced as follows:
THE ACADEMY MUSEUM WELCOMES SACHEEN LITTLEFEATHER FOR AN EVENING OF CONVERSATION, HEALING, AND CELEBRATION ON SEPTEMBER 17
The Academy Museum of Motion Pictures announced today An Evening with Sacheen Littlefeather, a very special program of conversation, reflection, healing, and celebration with Sacheen Littlefeather (Apache/Yaqui/AZ) on September 17, 2022.
In 1973, Sacheen Littlefeather, a member of the Screen Actors Guild, became the first Native woman to stand onstage at the Academy Awards® ceremony, on behalf of Marlon Brando. At his request, Littlefeather did not accept Brando’s Best Actor award for The Godfather and gave a passionate 60-second speech regarding the stereotypes of Native Americans in the entertainment industry. She also brought attention to the 1973 Wounded Knee protest in South Dakota. This moment resulted in her being professionally boycotted, personally attacked and harassed, and discriminated against for the last 50 years.
Littlefeather’s speech is highlighted in the museum’s Academy Awards History gallery, and she was interviewed this spring by Jacqueline Stewart, Director and President of the Academy Museum, for the Academy Museum Podcast episode “Marlon Brando Cannot Accept this Very Generous Award” about the 1973 Oscars®, the Academy’s A.frame article, and a Visual History as part of the Academy’s Oral History Projects (to be released in September 2022). In June, Littlefeather was presented with a statement of apology, signed by former Academy President David Rubin. The apology is available in full below.
“Regarding the Academy’s apology to me, 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. It’s our method of survival,” said Littlefeather. “I never thought I’d live to see the day for this program to take place, featuring such wonderful Native performers and Bird Runningwater, a television and film producer who also guided the Sundance Institute’s commitment to Indigenous filmmakers for twenty years through the Institute’s Labs and Sundance Film Festival. This is a dream come true. It is profoundly heartening to see how much has changed since I did not accept the Academy Award 50 years ago. I am so proud of each and every person who will appear on stage.”
Jacqueline Stewart, Director and President of the Academy Museum, said, “We are delighted and humbled that Sacheen has so generously chosen to engage with the museum and Academy to reflect upon her trying experience at the 1973 Academy Awards. Our thanks go out to Bird Runningwater and Heather Rae for helping us foster our cherished relationship with Sacheen. We hope our event on September 17 offers Sacheen and our audiences a moment of collective healing and a new path forward.”
An Evening with Sacheen Littlefeather will encourage reflection on a historic evening in 1973 and focus on a future founded on healing and celebration. The event, programmed by Sacheen Littlefeather and produced by Academy Museum Vice President of Education and Public Engagement Amy Homma, is part of the museum’s ongoing dedication to creating programs and exhibitions in partnership with film artists and communities that illuminate the entertainment industry’s past and pave the way for meaningful change in its future.
The evening’s program will include a land acknowledgment courtesy of Virginia Carmelo (Tongva/So. CA), a reading of the Academy’s letter of apology, Native American Indian performances, and a conversation between Littlefeather and Academy Member, producer, and co-chair of the Academy’s Indigenous Alliance Bird Runningwater (Cheyenne/Mescalero Apache/NM). Additional performers and speakers will include Academy CEO Bill Kramer, traditional vocalist and singer Calina Lawrence (Suquamish/WA), former Academy President David Rubin and incoming Academy President Janet Yang, emcee Earl Neconie (Kiowa/OK), emcee Jacqueline Stewart, Assemblymember James Ramos (Serrano/Cahuilla/So. CA), The San Manuel Bird Singers (San Manuel/CA), Michael Bellanger (Ojibway/MN & Kickapoo/OK) and the All Nation Singers and Dancers, and Steve Bohay (Kiowa/OK) and the Sooner Nation Singers and Dancers.
Tickets are free to the public and available on the Academy Museum website. Reservations are required.
Vincent Schilling, Akwesasne Mohawk, is the founder and editor of Native Viewpoint. With over 16 years of experience as a Native journalist and former member of the White House Press Pool. Follow Vincent on Twitter at @VinceSchilling or on any other of his social media accounts by clicking on any of the icons below.
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