Sacheen Littlefeather, Native American activist who declined Marlon Brando's Oscar, dies at 75


Sacheen Littlefeather appears at the Academy Awards ceremony to announce that Marlon Brando was declining his Oscar as best actor for his role in 'The Godfather', on March 27, 1973. Photo: AP

Sacheen Littlefeather, the Native American actress who famously declined Marlon Brandon's best actor Oscar in 1973, has died. She was 75.

News of Littlefeather's death was shared by the official Twitter account for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

Her family confirmed in a statement to USA Today that Littlefeather died Sunday (Oct 2) "peacefully at home" in Marin County, California, "surrounded by loved ones".

Littlefeather, who was Apache and Yaqui, was born Marie Louise Cruz on Nov 14, 1946, in Salinas, California. The actress, a graduate of California State University in Hayward who studied acting at the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco, appeared in films such as 1973's Counselor At Crime, 1974's The Trial of Billy Jack and 1975's Johnny Firecloud.

She went on to co-found the National American Indian Performing Arts Registry.

In 2018, Littlefeather revealed she was battling Stage Four breast cancer.

Her death came weeks after she received a long-overdue apology from the Academy Awards.

Nearly 50 years ago, the actress and activist rejected an Oscar on behalf of The Godfather star Brando, who boycotted the ceremony to protest Hollywood's negative portrayals of Native Americans. Littlefeather delivered a speech on his behalf, which was roundly mocked and booed by many members of the audience.

On Sept 17, Littleweather was honoured in "An Evening With Sacheen Littlefeather," billed as a programme of "conversation, reflection, healing and celebration" at the Academy Museum in Los Angeles. But Littlefeather had received a private apology from the Academy months prior in June.

"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," read a letter of apology, signed by the Academy's then-president, David Rubin. "For this, we offer both our deepest apologies and our sincere admiration."

Littlefeather told The Hollywood Reporter in August that she was "stunned" to receive a formal apology.

"I never thought I'd live to see the day I would be hearing this, experiencing this," Littlefeather said. "When I was at the podium in 1973, I stood there alone."

Sacheen Littlefeather on stage at AMPAS Presents An Evening with Sacheen Littlefeather at Academy Museum of Motion Pictures on Sept 17, 2022 in Los Angeles, California. Photo: AFPSacheen Littlefeather on stage at AMPAS Presents An Evening with Sacheen Littlefeather at Academy Museum of Motion Pictures on Sept 17, 2022 in Los Angeles, California. Photo: AFP

But as Hollywood still struggles to make meaningful strides for Indigenous representation, some members of the Native American community found the public apology to Littlefeather the bare minimum.

"Honestly, it's been 50 years," Eric Buffalohead, chair of the American Indian, First Nations and Indigenous Studies department at Augsburg University in Minneapolis, told USA Today after the Academy event. "(It) definitely feels too little too late."

He added, "Hollywood has spent over 100 years portraying American Indians as a part of the past, stuck forever in 18th- and 19th-century settings. The fantasy of American Indians has replaced the reality of American Indians in people's minds."

Littlefeather became the first Native American woman to speak on stage at the Oscars. Wearing a buckskin dress and moccasins, she delivered a 60-second speech explaining that Brando could not accept the award because of "the treatment of American Indians today by the film industry".

The 1973 Oscars were held during the American Indian Movement's two-month occupation of Wounded Knee in South Dakota, which Brando referenced in the speech she delivered.

As she exited the Oscars stage after the speech, "I was met with the stereotypical tomahawk chop, individuals who called at me, and I ignored all of them," she told Variety recently.

"I continued to walk straight ahead with a couple of armed guards beside me, and I held my head high and was proud to be the first Indigenous woman in the history of the Academy Awards to make that political statement."

In the years since, Littlefeather said she had been discriminated against and personally attacked for her brief appearance.

On Sunday, the Academy shared a quote from the civil rights activist that read: "When I am gone, always be reminded that whenever you stand for your truth, you will be keeping my voice and the voices of our nations and our people alive." – USA Today/Tribune News Service

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