Sacheen Littlefeather made Oscars history in 1973 when she became the first Native woman to stand on stage at the awards ceremony. When Marlon Brando was named best actor for “The Godfather,” Littlefeather declined the prize on behalf of him, as he had boycotted the Oscars in protest of Hollywood’s portrayal of Native Americans. Met with both boos and cheers, she was escorted off the stage.
But her 60-second Oscar speech was life-changing for her, as well as others. “He very regretfully cannot accept this very generous award,” Littlefeather said to an audience of millions in her 1973 speech. “And the reasons for this being are the treatment of American Indians today by the film industry… and on television in movie re-runs, and also with recent happenings at Wounded Knee.”
Now, 50 years later, Littlefeather has received a letter of apology from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. And this weekend, the Academy will host “An Evening With Sacheen Littlefeather,” billed as a “very special program of conversation, reflection, healing and celebration.”
In an interview with Variety, Littlefeather reflects on that Oscar night, and says she would do it all again “in a heartbeat.” She made the speech, she says, not just for Brando — who was a known Native American ally — but for her people and the racial injustices they had suffered. She also discusses her assertion that she heard that John Wayne attempted to rush the stage before being intercepted by security, and her friendship with Brando.
Thinking back to that night, when you were on stage making this powerful and historic speech, how did you feel immediately afterward?
I had watched [the Oscars] like everybody else, on TV, but that was the first time at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. It was my first time at the Academy Awards. I made it through my first hurdle, promising Marlon Brando that I would not touch that Oscar. But, as I walked off that stage, I did in the ways of courage, honor grace, dignity and truthfulness. I did so in the ways of my ancestors and the ways of Indigenous women.
I was met with the stereotypical tomahawk chop, individuals who called at me, and I ignored all of them. 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.
At that time in 1973, there was a media blackout on Wounded Knee and against the American Indian Movement that was occupying it. Marlon had called them in advance and asked them to watch the Academy Awards, which they did. As they saw me, up on stage, refusing that Academy Award for the stereotypes within the film industry, and mentioning Wounded Knee in South Dakota, it would break the media boycott.
Everyone wants to know the true story of what was happening there, but it foiled the plans of the FBI. Sometimes, when you don’t like the message, as they say in Rome, you try to kill the messenger. The FBI had plans to take all those AIM-sters [American Indian Movement members] like Dennis Banks and my brothers Russell Means and Oren Lyons to a place like Guantanamo Bay. They would never be heard from again, but that did not happen because of my speech.
There were further talks, Oren told me, that the United States government was planning on building some sort of military base there on the reservation and that the speech also foiled the plans. There was a lot of interruption of plans that did not take place as a result of that speech.
In the documentary “Sacheen Breaking the Silence,” you talk about people trying to get on stage and you mention the often-repeated story about John Wayne being restrained. What do you remember about that moment?
I heard a disturbance from behind me as I was speaking up at the podium. I found out that he had been restrained by six security men from assaulting me while I was on that stage. That was the most violent moment that had ever taken place at the Academy Awards.
So, you heard about it from a security guard?
Yes, but it was never publicized. He was never admonished by the Academy. It was never published in the press. But the most violent moments took place then and there at the Academy Awards by John Wayne.
Way back then, when I did that, I was boycotted by the FBI. They went around Hollywood and told people not to hire me. If they did, they would shut their film production down. In addition, other people were let on talk shows like Johnny Carson, Merv Griffin, and other popular talk shows. They could go on there and talk about me, but I was never allowed to go on them and represent myself.
Furthermore, that 60-second piece of film was kept under wraps for a long time and not shown to the general public. It wasn’t readily available. Two generations later, it became available to the public. People started asking questions. What was that all about? Who is that woman? And people asked, “Why is she doing that?” That is how it came to the surface once again.
And when the [Academy] Museum included Native American Indian people on its board of directors, things started moving forward. I’m here to see a letter, 50 years later, this apology — it was something I never expected and came as a total surprise to me.
Marlon Brando was a known ally to the Native American and Indigenous community. What does allyship look like to you?
My friendship with Marlon Brando was based on mutual interest. I did not know Marlon Brando as an actor. It was focused on Native American Indigenous issues. I was not one of his love interests, far from it. I enjoyed talking with him. We enjoyed laughing together. Sometimes we used to sit together, talk and just laugh our asses off. He’s also a great prankster. Besides that, he had a kinship with Native American Indian people that goes way back. I appreciated his friendship and his ability to see through the baloney and the prejudice. He understood racial prejudice in a way that most people do not, and that was refreshing to me.
Knowing everything you know now, if you had to do it all over again, would you still take to the stage and accept Marlon Brando’s Oscar?
In a heartbeat. I did not do this totally for Marlon. I did not do this on my behalf. I did this for all Native people everywhere who suffered from racial prejudice and discrimination. I did it for all of those who were born under the umbrella of genocide, in the United States, and Canada, and for all of us who have suffered through extreme stereotypes which were not of our choosing.
Should Hollywood use platforms such as the Academy Awards to make more political statements?
I can’t speak for other people, but people have to look into their hearts. They have to see what’s appropriate for them, what they say and what they do. It’s not for me to judge, so I can’t make a statement on their behalf. All I know is that… I don’t hold anger, hate or have any animosity toward anyone, including the Academy and the John Waynes of the world. I’m not a wealthy person. I’m a poor person. I don’t have much, but I do what I can. I try not to judge others. So, what other people want to do and what they feel in their hearts, they have to do.