Culture on My Mind
April 11, 2022
With the recent Oscars scandal on everyone’s mind, I decided to dig into a different time when the Academy was shaken up. This week, I’m thinking about Sacheen Littlefeather and her protest at the 45th Academy Awards.
Before talking about the actual protest, however, it’s important to think about the context. Between February 27 and May 8, 1973, approximately two hundred Ogala Lakota and followers of the American Indian Movement (known as AIM) seized and occupied the town of Wounded Knee, South Dakota, located on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.
The grievances were twofold. First, they were protesting the failure of the Ogala Sioux Civil Rights Organization to impeach tribal president Richard Wilson on charges of corruption and abuse of opponents. Second, they protested the United States government’s failure to fulfill treaties with Native American people. To that point, they demanded the reopening of treaty negotiations in the hopes of finding fair and equitable treatment of Native Americans.
The siege was a long time coming, fueled by decades of Native American mistreatment and misrepresentation by the United States. Symbolically, the site was chosen for its historic value, having been the same place where three hundred Lakota were massacred by the United States Army on December 29, 1890.
The siege lasted for 71 days and resulted in two deaths, several wounded, and one missing civil rights activist. The events buoyed Native Americans and supporters, motivating widespread public sympathy as the country became more aware of the injustices related to Native Americans. Among those supporters was Sacheen Littlefeather.
Born Marie Cruz, Sacheen Littlefeather was the daughter of a Native American (Apache and Yaqui) father and a European American mother. She found her voice as a Native American activist during the 19-month occupation of Alcatraz that began in 1969 and began to explore her heritage.
She contacted Marlon Brando, an AIM supporter, and established a relationship with the actor through his interest in Native American issues, including treatment in Hollywood.
Native Americans in Hollywood are typically fictitious stock characters and stereotypes. They are often portrayed across the range from violent barbarians to noble and peaceful savages, and they were often whitewashed in the heyday of the Western film genre by placing white actors in redface. Native Americans in Western films were often cast as a mysterious villainous horde, and it wasn’t until 1950’s Broken Arrow that Native Americans started being seen sympathetically in film. The tide turned in the 1990s toward explorations of the depth and complexity of Native tribes, but 1973 was a completely different story.
The favorite film at the 45th Academy Awards was The Godfather, tied with Cabaret at ten nominations, and Marlon Brando was expected to win the Best Actor award for his performance. He decided to boycott the ceremony and sent Sacheen Littlefeather in his place with a 15-page speech to explore their shared grievances. She arrived in an Apache buckskin dress minutes before the award was announced, accompanied by Brando’s secretary, Alice Marchak, and was told that she had 60 seconds to deliver the speech or she would be removed.
She ascended the stage, turned down the award with an upraised hand, and improvised.
Hello. My name is Sacheen Littlefeather. I’m Apache and I am president of the National Native American Affirmative Image Committee. I’m representing Marlon Brando this evening, and he has asked me to tell you in a very long speech which I cannot share with you presently, because of time, but I will be glad to share with the press afterwards, that he 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 – excuse me…
At this point, she was interrupted by both boos and cheers from the assembled audience, but she carried on.
…and on television in movie re-runs, and also with recent happenings at Wounded Knee. I beg at this time that I have not intruded upon this evening, and that we will in the future, our hearts and our understandings will meet with love and generosity. Thank you on behalf of Marlon Brando.
According to an interview with The Guardian, she was almost forcibly removed by actor John Wayne, but he was restrained by six security guards. John Wayne made a career in the Western film genre as the stereotypical Hollywood cowboy and his racism, homophobia, misogyny, and disdain for social programs were well-known, especially from his 1971 interview with Playboy magazine.
With a lot of blacks, there’s quite a bit of resentment along with their dissent, and possibly rightfully so. But we can’t all of a sudden get down on our knees and turn everything over to the leadership of the blacks. I believe in white supremacy until the blacks are educated to a point of responsibility. […] I don’t feel we did wrong in taking this great country away from the Indians. Our so-called stealing of this country from them was just a matter of survival. There were great numbers of people who needed new land, and the Indians were selfishly trying to keep it for themselves.
Littlefeather’s speech did not go well with the industry or certain fans. Later that night, Littlefeather was mocked by both Raquel Welch and Clint Eastwood as they presented other awards, and her appearance prompted the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to eliminate the use of proxy acceptance of awards in the future. Backstage after her presentation, people were making stereotypical Native American war cries and miming the tomahawk chop in mockery.
The media published several false stories in an attempt to discredit Littlefeather and her heritage, and when she visited Brando’s home after the ceremony, bullets were fired into his front door. But, with Brando’s 15-page speech shared with the New York Times, attention was focused back on Wounded Knee. The media blackout of the siege was lifted and the world’s eyes were opened.
Coretta Scott King called Littlefeather to thank her for the speech. She was also cited as the inspiration for Jada Pinkett Smith’s boycott of the 87th Academy Awards in 2014 for lack of diversity in nominations.
After the Oscars scandal, Littlefeather traveled the world and received a degree in health with a minor in Native American medicine. She spent her life involved in Native American activism, including co-founding the National American Indian Performing Arts Registry and the American Indian AIDS Institute of San Francisco.
Despite being the butt of racist and misogynist jokes to this day, she has lived up to the promise she made to herself that she would break barriers and live an interesting life.
In 2018, she announced that she had developed Stage 4 breast cancer. In a mid-2021 interview, she revealed that the disease had metastasized to her right lung and that she was terminally ill.
The Academy Awards are often nights of glitter and glamor, typically viewed as an opportunity for Hollywood to toot horns (or slap faces) in extravagant self-indulgence. But with millions of eyes and ears on the annual ceremonies, sometimes messages including climate change, equal pay, and voting rights take center stage. It’s a trend that I support given the spotlight and audience that these often well-educated celebrities command. They are far from mere monkeys paid to dance for our enjoyment.
In 1973, at what is known as the most controversial Oscars ceremony on record, the spotlight was placed on Native American rights. I hope history remembers Sacheen Littlefeather and her courage as she faced down an entire entertainment industry for what she believed in.
Culture on My Mind is inspired by the weekly Can’t Let It Go segment on the NPR Politics Podcast where each host brings one thing to the table that they just can’t stop thinking about.
For more creativity with a critical eye, visit Creative Criticality.