Sacheen Littlefeather (Apache/Yaqui/Ariz.), the Native American actress and activist who took to the stage at the 1973 Academy Awards to reveal that Marlon Brando would not accept his Oscar for The Godfather, has died. She was 75.
Littlefeather died at noon Sunday at her home in the Northern California city of Novato surrounded by her loved ones, according to a statement sent out by her caretaker. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which reconciled with Littlefeather in June and hosted a celebration in her honor just two weeks ago, revealed the news on social media Sunday night.
Littlefeather disclosed in March 2018 that she had been diagnosed with stage 4 breast cancer, and it had metastasized in recent years.
Brando had decided to boycott the March 1973 Oscars in protest of how Native Americans were portrayed onscreen as well as to pay tribute to the ongoing occupation at Wounded Knee, in which 200 members of the American Indian Movement (AIM) faced off against thousands of US marshals and other federal agents in the South Dakota town.
After presenters Liv Ullmann and Roger Moore listed the nominees for best actor and Ullmann called out Brando’s name as the winner, the telecast cut to Littlefeather, then 26 and wearing a traditional Apache dress, walking to the stage from her seat at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion as the announcer explained, “Accepting the award for Marlon Brando and The GodfatherMiss Sacheen Littlefeather.”
Littlefeather, however, held up her right hand to decline the statuette proffered by Moore as she reached the podium and told the Chandler audience and the 85 million viewers watching at home that Brando “very regretfully cannot accept this very generous award.”
Speaking in measured tones but off-the-cuff — Brando, who told her not to touch the trophy, had given her a typed eight-page speech, but telecast producer Howard Koch informed her she had no more than 60 seconds — she continued, “And the reasons for this being are the treatment of American Indians today by the film industry … and on television in movie reruns, and also with recent happenings at Wounded Knee.”
Littlefeather’s remarks were met in the building by a smattering of boos as well as applause, but public sentiment in the immediate aftermath of her appearance was largely negative. Some media outlets questioned her Native heritage (her father was Apache and Yaqui and her mother was white) and claimed she rented her costume for the ceremony, while conservative celebrities including John Wayne, Clint Eastwood and Charlton Heston — three actors who had starred in many a Western — reportedly criticized Brando and Littlefeather’s actions.
As she was becoming an indelible part of Oscar lore, Wayne “was in the wings, ready to have me taken off stage,” she told the Los Angeles Times in 2016. “He had to be restrained by six security guards.” That may not have been the case, an investigation showed.
Regardless, nearly 50 years later, the Academy issued her an apology.
“The abuse you endured because of this statement was unwarranted and unjustified,” then-AMPAS president David Rubin wrote to her in a letter dated June 18. “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.”
“I was stunned. I never thought I’d live to see the day I would be hearing this, experiencing this,” Littlefeather told The Hollywood Reporter. “When I was at the podium in 1973, I stood there alone.”
Born Marie Louise Cruz on Nov. 14, 1946, in the coastal California city of Salinas, Littlefeather was primarily raised by her mother’s parents. She began exploring her Native identity at California State University in Hayward and participated in the Native occupation to attempt to reclaim Alcatraz Island in 1969, and it was her fellow activist friends who renamed her.
Shortly thereafter, Littlefeather received a full scholarship to study acting at San Francisco’s American Conservatory Theater. “Dancing and acting was an escape from reality,” she told Tea Native American Times in 2010.
She got some work in radio and TV ads (including as Miss Vampire USA for a Dark Shadows soap opera promotion) but found it a struggle to land substantive parts in Hollywood: “Americans liked the blonde Sandra Dee look … I got speaking parts in Italian films because they liked the exotic.”
In 1972, she participated in a planned Playboy shoot called “Ten Little Indians” that was scrapped before publication when the occupation at Wounded Knee began in February 1973. But after Littlefeather’s Oscar appearance, Playboy printed her photos as a standalone feature, further discrediting her in some people’s eyes.
She had met Brando for the first time a few years earlier when she was in Washington giving a presentation to the FCC on race and minorities.
“In the ’70s, you had AIM and the Indian Civil Rights Movement and that was the part that I was in,” she said. “I was a spokesperson, so to speak, for the stereotype of Native Americans in film and in television. All I was saying was, ‘We don’t want Chuck Connors playing Geronimo.’”
When she mentioned to Brando that she didn’t have an evening dress for the Oscars, “Marlon told me to wear my buckskin,” she said in the 2018 documentary Sacheen: Breaking the Silence.
Three months after the Oscars, Brando appeared on The Dick Cavett Show and said that he “was embarrassed for Sacheen. She wasn’t able to say what she intended to say, and I was distressed that people booed and whistled and stomped even though perhaps it was directed at myself. They should have at least had the courtesy to listen to her.”
Although Brando’s stunt had the intended effect of renewing attention on Wounded Knee, Littlefeather said it put her life at risk and killed her acting career, claiming that she lost guild memberships and was banned from the industry. (In addition, the Academy subsequently prohibited winners from sending proxies to accept — or reject — awards on their behalf.)
“I was blacklisted — or, you could say, ‘redlisted,’” Littlefeather said in her documentary. “Johnny Carson, Dick Cavett and others didn’t want me on their shows. … The doors were closed tight, never to reopen.”
Littlefeather managed to appear in a handful of films (The Trial of Billy Jack, Johnny Firecloud and Winterhawk among them) before she quit acting for good and earned a degree in holistic health from Antioch University with a minor in Native American medicine. Her work in wellness included writing a health column for the Kiowa tribe newspaper in Oklahoma, teaching in the traditional Indian medicine program at St. Mary’s Hospital in Tucson, Arizona, and working with Mother Teresa on behalf of AIDS patients in the Bay Area. She would go on to serve as a founding board member of the American Indian AIDS Institute of San Francisco.
Littlefeather also continued her involvement in the arts, co-founding the nonprofit National American Indian Performing Arts Registry in the early ’80s, advising on multiple PBS programs and continuing to be an advocate for Native American inclusion in Hollywood (she appeared in the 2009 documentary Reel Injun).
“I was the first woman of color to ever make a political statement in the history of the Academy Awards,” Littlefeather said in Sacheenand at the time, Coretta Scott King and Cesar Chavez were among the few who publicly praised her Oscar speech.
But over the decades, her onstage advocacy proved to be a precursor for the conversation about diversity in Hollywood that continues today, and Jada Pinkett Smith cited her as an inspiration for her own boycott of the 2016 Academy Awards (the #OscarsSoWhite ceremony).
The two emails exchanged at the time, with Smith writing, “Thank you for being one of the brave and courageous to help pave the way for those of us who need a reminder of the importance to simply be true.”
Littlefeather will be buried next to her husband, Charles Koshiway (Otoe/Sac&Fox), in Red Rock, Oklahoma. Koshiway died of blood cancer in November 2021. The two met 32 years ago at a pow wow at the University of California at Davis.
“The night before we met, I had a dream that I was introduced to this good-looking Indian man, and he tipped his white Stetson cowboy hat and talked in this very soft Oklahoma accent: ‘How’re yew?’” she told THR in August. “The next day, my roommate and I drove up to the UC Davis pow wow and underneath this white Stetson cowboy hat was this very handsome Indian man, and the first thing he did was tip his hat, look in my eyes and say, ‘How’re yew?’ That’s all it took. The man of my dreams.”
Upon receiving the Academy’s apology, Littlefeather said of her late husband, “His spirit is still here with me, and I know that what he wanted for me was always justice and reconciliation.” And two weeks before her death, when she took to an Academy stage for the second time in her life, at the museum’s celebration in her honor, she knew her own passing was imminent: “I’m crossing over soon to the spirit world. And you know, I’m not afraid to die. Because we come from a we/us/our society. We don’t come from a me/I/myself society. And we learn to give away from a very young age. When we are honored, we give.”
A Catholic Requiem Mass for her will be held this month at St. Rita Church in Fairfax, California, with a reception to follow. Littlefeather requested that donations be made to the American Indian Child Resource Center of Oakland.
In her final public appearance, she spoke again on behalf of all Native peoples: “I am here accepting this apology, not only for me alone but as acknowledgment, knowing that it was not only for me, but for all of our nations that also need to hear and deserve this apology tonight. Look at our people. Look at each other and be proud that we stand as survivors, all of us. Please, when I’m 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.”