Sacheen Littlefeather, the Native American activist who endured decades of harassment after declining Marlon Brando’s best actor prize at the 1973 Oscars ceremony, received a formal apology from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS) at an event on Saturday.
Nearly 50 years ago, Littlefeather stood onstage after Brando was awarded for his performance in The Godfather. Speaking on his behalf, she declined the statuette and instead gave a 60-second speech to bring awareness to Native American issues.
“We were in a collaboration at that time, because [Brando] was very aware of the stereotype of Native American Indians in film, television and the sports industry. And so was I,” Littlefeather said at the event, during a conversation with Bird Runningwater, the co-chair of the Academy’s Indigenous Alliance.
“It was with prayer that I went up there,” she said. “I went up there like a proud Indian woman; with dignity, with courage, with grace and with humility.”
While onstage, Littlefeather was in high spirits, cracking jokes and recalling her friendship with Brando. The event featured speeches and performances by Indigenous artists handpicked by Littlefeather, many of whom were the children and grandchildren of her friends. The live broadcast began at 8 p.m. ET.
Reading the apology letter that he wrote to her in June, former AMPAS president David Rubin told Littlefeather, “the abuse you endured because of this statement was unwarranted and unjustified.”
“You are forever respectfully ingrained in our history,” he added.
Littlefeather, who is Apache and Yaqui, was just 26 when Brando — her friend and the front-runner for that year’s award for his performance as mafia boss Vito Corleone — asked her to attend the ceremony on his behalf and decline the award.
When Brando won the prize that night, Littlefeather rose to the stage. Brando “very regretfully cannot accept this very generous award and the reasons for this being are the treatment of American Indians today by the film industry,” she said.
WATCH | Sacheen Littlefeather declines Marlon Brando’s Oscar:
She also referenced the 1973 occupation of Wounded Knee in SouthDakota, where a standoff between Lakota activists and U.S. federal agents became a pivotal moment in the struggle for Native American rights.
Wearing a buckskin dress and moccasins, Littlefeather spoke to a divided audience, half of whom applauded and half who jeered as she spoke. She later said that she was the target of racist harassment backstage, with people making stereotypical war cries at her, and that actor John Wayne tried to lunge at her while she spoke onstage.
“That was the most violent act that ever took place at the Academy Awards,” Littlefeather told Runningwater on Saturday.
She also said that a producer of the 1973 show threatened her, telling her that if she spoke for more than 60 seconds he would have her arrested and put in jail. Brando had given her an eight-page speech to read and she was forced to improvise.
“You can see, I wasn’t under any pressure that night,” she joked.
Littlefeather, an actor at the time, said she was blacklisted by Hollywood and harassed for many years after the speech.
“I didn’t represent myself. I was representing all Indigenous voices out there, all Indigenous people, because we had never been heard in that way before,” she told the audience.
“If I had to pay the price of admission, then that was OK. Because those doors had to be opened.”