Sacheen Littlefeather became the first woman of color and the first indigenous woman, to use the Oscars platform to make a political statement.
Over the past five decades, the Oscars stage has been used by many Hollywood stars to make impactful political statements. From Patricia Arquette's 2015 acceptance speech calling for equal pay to Leonardo DiCaprio highlighting climate change while accepting his long-anticipated Oscar, the platform has shined the spotlight on a number of important issues. However, none of this would've been possible had it not been for a handful of trailblazers who dared to speak out at a time when doing so was considered a radical move. One of the first names that come to mind when thinking of these pioneers is Native American actress and activist Sacheen Littlefeather who became the first woman of color and the first indigenous woman, to use the Academy Awards platform to make a political statement.
Phenomenal story.— Shimon Cohen (@ShimonDCohen) October 11, 2021
‘I promised Brando I would not touch his Oscar’: the secret life of Sacheen Littlefeather | Native Americans | The Guardian https://t.co/qFfYEsvg0f
On the night of March 27, 1973, the then-26-year-old Littlefeather walked on to the 45th Academy Awards stage — dressed in a tasselled buckskin dress adorned with beadwork — to speak on behalf of Marlon Brando, who had been awarded best actor for his performance in The Godfather. However, instead of accepting the Oscar from presenters Roger Moore and Liv Ullmann, she held out her hand as if to push it away. Turning to the microphone, Littlefeather explained why.
Sacheen Littlefeather pic.twitter.com/u0GaOyvJ4Q— ᐯIᑎTᗩᘜᗴᗷIᑭOᑕᗯOᗰᗴᑎ (@dailybipocwomen) October 9, 2021
"I'm Apache and... I'm representing Marlon Brando this evening, and he has asked me to tell you in a very long speech that I cannot share with you presently, because of time... [that] he very regretfully cannot accept this very generous award," she told the stunned stars in the audience and the millions watching from home. "And the reasons for this being are the treatment of American Indians today by the film industry." Although the crowd interrupted her at this point, half-applauding and half-booing, Littlefeather pushed on seemingly unperturbed.
#sacheenLittlefeather - I met her in 1973 by chance. She was a friend of both Marlon Brando & Jack Nicholson. I was honored to meet her. She bravely spoke truth to the movie titans.I was born in Colo. - unforgiving place of the Sandcreek massacre. Took 40+ years to hear her. pic.twitter.com/AOqyQOOT8K— Sydney Kravetz (@booksavor) October 12, 2021
"Excuse me," she said calmly before adding: "And on television and movie reruns, and also with recent happenings at Wounded Knee." Littlefeather was referencing the 71-day Occupy Wounded Knee siege that followed 200 Oglala Lakota (Sioux) activists seizing control of Wounded Knee in South Dakota, and taking the town's residents hostage, while demanding that the U.S. government honor their treaties established in the 19th and early-20th centuries. Within hours, the town was surrounded by armed police who formed a cordon to prevent protesters from exiting and sympathizers from entering. Two native activists lost their lives in the conflict, and a federal agent was shot and paralyzed.
In 1973, Indigenous activist Sacheen Littlefeather refused Marlon Brando’s Oscar for “The Godfather” on his behalf, instead using the stage to highlight the mistreatment of her people in Hollywood https://t.co/U414cp8GJ4— Vogue Magazine (@voguemagazine) October 12, 2021
The media at the time often referred to Native activists as dangerous and three weeks into the 1973 occupation, the U.S. Justice Department barred the media from entering Wounded Knee to interview the occupiers. "Marlon Brando was an excellent strategist, and he knew that that year, the Academy Awards would be broadcast via satellite, to millions of people all over the world. The FBI had put a news blackout on Wounded Knee, so that people couldn’t hear from [the activists]. This was a way to get around that. When people saw that broadcast, all hell broke loose. It put a lot of attention on the FBI’s actions," Littlefeather told Los Angeles Times in 2016.
Littlefeather ended her Oscar speech begging that "in the future, our hearts and our understandings will meet with love and generosity." However, she received very little of it in the aftermath of the Academy Awards. "The government was madder than hell. Afterward, they came looking for me, and told everyone in the studios in Hollywood not to hire me, or they would shut them down. That's how it was. I was the subject of a big exclusion. There's an old saying, if you don't like the message, you kill the messenger. And I was the messenger. I was blacklisted, or you could say 'redlisted.' Johnny Carson, Dick Cavett, they didn't want me on their shows," she said.
1973: Native American actor Sacheen Littlefeather boo'd (and cheered) by Hollywood at the Oscars before being mocked by Clint Eastwood and almost physically assaulted by John Wayne simply for asking that Indigenous people not to be dehumanized in film.pic.twitter.com/BgOiuBq4hR— raf (@rafaelshimunov) October 11, 2021
Speaking to The Guardian earlier this year, Littlefeather — now 74 and battling breast cancer — revealed that she'd almost been assaulted by John Wayne, serial slaughterer of Native Americans on-screen and a self-professed White supremacist in real life, that night. "During my presentation, he was coming towards me to forcibly take me off the stage, and he had to be restrained by six security men to prevent him from doing so," she said, adding that when she got backstage, there were also people making stereotypical Native American war cries at her and miming chopping with a tomahawk.
When Sacheen Littlefeather and Marlon Brando Fought John Wayne for the Soul of the Oscars https://t.co/RTfiN6yzfW— Miss T (@tlc6767) October 11, 2021
However, Littlefeather is proud of the trail she blazed. "I didn't use my fist [she clenches her fist]. I didn't use swearwords," she said. "I didn't raise my voice. But I prayed that my ancestors would help me. I went up there like a warrior woman. I went up there with the grace and the beauty and the courage and the humility of my people. I spoke from my heart."