Whatever Happened To Sacheen Littlefeather?

It's the night of the 1973 Oscars. Marlon Brando has just won in the best actor category for his role in "The Godfather." Quickly, the evening goes off script and into the history books. Brando refuses to accept the Oscar. Instead, he gives his on-screen time to Sacheen Littlefeather, an Apache and Yaqui model and an aspiring actress (via The Hollywood Reporter).

Two months before the broadcast, American Indian Movement had staged a protest in Wounded Knee, South Dakota, to fight against the historical and contemporary mistreatment of Native American people. In response, the U.S. Department ordered a "media blackout," banning all news coverage of the protests. Brando hoped to use his acceptance speech window to call attention to these events and to give voice to Native Americans on the national stage.

Furious at Brando and Littlefeather, the Oscars producer Howard Koch warned her that she had only 60 seconds to speak. He threatened that he had law enforcement officers waiting to arrest her if she exceeded the time limit. The 26-year-old Littlefeather's night would only worsen once she stepped onto the stage.

Littlefeather faced backlash and exclusion from Hollywood

Sporting a buckskin dress and moccasins, Sacheen Littlefeather approached the podium, declining to take the Oscar statuette, reports The Washington Post. Brando had given her eight typed pages of remarks to give, but Koch's threats forced her to improvise. She begins, stating that Marlon Brando "very regretfully cannot accept this very generous award." She continues, explaining she was there because of "the treatment of American Indians today by the film industry." At this point, the audience, full of celebrities and representatives of the movie industry, interrupt her with boos and mocking whoops, characteristic of the stereotypes about Native Americans Littlefeather hoped to speak against (per The Hollywood Reporter). When Littlefeather remembers this moment, she says, "I stood there alone."

In addition to the verbal harassment, members of the audience made "tomahawk chop" hand gestures. In the stage's wings, said Littlefeather, security officers restrained a furious John Wayne, who attempted to assault her physically, writes The Washington Post. This hate-filled incident was the first moment a Native American woman had ever appeared on the stage at the Academy Awards.

Though, for many, the Academy's treatment of Littlefeather is a shameful moment in cinema history, that evening forever altered Littlefeather's life. She believes that threats from the federal government, to shut down any production that included her, kept her from appearing on talk shows or for interviews after, says The Hollywood Reporter. She left her acting dreams and moved to the Bay Area, where she worked in a hospice facility for AIDS patients. She says she's endured by focusing on "love, gratitude, and forgiveness."

The Academy apologizes to Littlefeather

Nearly 50 years later, the Academy has reached out to Sacheen Littlefeather — now 75 years old — to apologize and honor her activism. In June of 2022, the Academy invited her to be the guest of honor at an event hosted in Los Angeles by the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures, says NPR. The event will take place on September 17, and is "a moment of reflection."

Along with the invitation, the Academy issued Littlefeather a personal apology from David Rubin, the Academy president. "The abuse you endured because of this statement was unwarranted and unjustified," Ruben writes. "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."

Of the apology, Littlefeather said, "I was stunned. I never thought I'd live to see the day I would be hearing this, experiencing this" (per The Hollywood Reporter). She told NPR that she made the speech to push for more diverse representation in Hollywood, "A rainbow of people that should be involved in creating their own image." Now, Littlefeather is pleased to see more Native American-run projects in Hollywood with TV shows like "Rutherford Falls," "Dark Winds," and "Reservation Dogs." She said, "At long last, somebody is breaking down the doors. And I'm so very happy this is happening."

Sacheen Littlefeather died October 2, 2022 (via The Washington Post).