Culture on My Mind – Sacheen Littlefeather

Culture on My Mind

Culture on My Mind
Sacheen Littlefeather
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.

In part:

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.


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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.

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Culture on My Mind – The Overthrow of the Kingdom of Hawai’i

Culture on My Mind

Culture on My Mind
The Overthrow of the Kingdom of Hawai’i
March 7, 2022

An educational short from TED-Ed about the dark history of paradise is on my mind this week.

The history is apalling but not unique. This United States has a history of taking lands from native people simply because they want it.

The United States apologized for its role in the affair through United States Public Law 103-150 of 1993 (known as the “Apology Resolution”), which acknowledged two things:

  • First, that “the overthrow of the Kingdom of Hawaii occurred with the active participation of agents and citizens of the United States”, and
  • Second, “that the Native Hawaiian people never directly relinquished to the United States their claims to their inherent sovereignty as a people over their national lands, either through the Kingdom of Hawaii or through a plebiscite or referendum.”

This short video provides an overview through the two-year reign of Queen Liliʻuokalani.

In light of the recent spate of book banning and demands for greater oversight in public schools, there is an unattributed quote circulating the internet. The truth about studying history is very simple.

Studying history will sometimes make you uncomfortable. Studying history will sometimes make you feel deeply upset. Studying history will sometimes make you feel extremely angry. If studying history always makes you feel proud and happy, you probably aren’t studying history.

History is never clean and simple because people and nations will always do terrible things, and they will justify those atrocities in any way they can. You can be proud of your heritage and citizenship but knowledge and understanding of what built them to you are key to maintaining the rights and privileges you enjoy.

History is bloody and complicated. If studying history always makes you feel proud and happy, you’re likely studying propaganda.


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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.

Book Review: “A Children’s Illustrated History of Presidential Assassination” by Bryan Young

An illustrated history of assassination seems like an odd topic for a children’s book. It seems even stranger when the topic becomes the assassination of the President of the United States. But, let’s face it: In the quest to explore the world around them, kids don’t come equipped with filters for social niceties. Topics that adults consider taboo, such as the death and murder – especially when it applies to the leader of one of the most power nations in the world – are often on a level playing field with the color wheel, multiplication tables, and the alphabet.

“A Children’s Illustrated History of Presidential Assassination” is a book geared toward those difficult discussions. Author Bryan Young simplifies the topic in prose that explains and educates without talking down or being condescending to the audience. Focusing on each of the presidents who was either assassinated or had an attempt made against them, his prose introduces each leader and places them in both an understandable political and historical context. Shying away from a simple list of names and dates, he makes each history lesson engaging and entertaining.

Accompanying the text are illustrations by two artists. Erin Kubinek provides detailed imagery with a simple and comic flair that illustrates key points while complimenting and enhancing the unfolding stories. Some of the drawings are a little gruesome, but that only helps the audience to understand how messy the topic truly is. The second artist is Scout Young, the author’s daughter, who adds a presidential portrait from the point of view of the book’s intended audience. Her drawings add a degree of whimsy to an interpretation of how she sees the topic, and as one of the inspirations for the book, it’s quite fitting to include her work as a touchstone for children and parents exploring of the darker sides of American history.

As a bonus, the book ends with a short story that provides a taste of the author’s fiction style. As a fan of Young’s “Lost at the Con,” both the short story and the history book were a wonderful display of his versatility and talent.

Bryan Young’s “A Children’s Illustrated History of Presidential Assassination” is a book I highly recommend.

A Children's Illustrated History of Presidential Assassination Cover

Day of Infamy

“Yesterday, December 7th, 1941 — a date which will live in infamy — the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan.”    —President Franklin D. Roosevelt

May the 2,402 American military, 57 American civilian, and 64 Japanese military casualties rest in peace.

This Day in History

October 26th is the 299th day of the year, or the 300th during leap years by the Gregorian calendar. There are 66 days remaining until the end of the year.  I’m also somewhat partial to it.

The following events are sourced from Wikipedia:

1609 – William Sprague, English co-founder of Charlestown, Massachusetts was born. Coincidentally, he died on the same day in 1675.

1774 – The first Continental Congress adjourns in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

1775 – King George III goes before Parliament to declare the American colonies in rebellion, and authorized a military response to quell the American Revolution.

1776 – Benjamin Franklin departs from America for France on a mission to seek French support for the American Revolution.

1825 – The Erie Canal opens, establishing passage from Albany, New York to Lake Erie.

1854 – C. W. Post, American entrepreneur is born. You know, the cereal guy?

1861 – The Pony Express officially ceases operations two days after the transcontinental telegraph reached Salt Lake City and connected Omaha, Nebraska and Sacramento, California.

1865 – Benjamin Guggenheim, American businessman and one of the most prominent American victims of the Titanic disaster, is born.

1874 – Abby Aldrich Rockefeller, prominent socialite, philanthropist, and the second-generation matriarch of the renowned Rockefeller family was born. She was especially noteworthy for driving the establishment of the Museum of Modern Art, on 53rd Street in New York.

1881 – The Gunfight at the O.K. Corral takes place at Tombstone, Arizona.

1914 – Jackie Coogan, Uncle Fester on 1960s sitcom The Addams Family, is born.

1916 – Boyd Wagner, First United States Army Air Forces (USAAF) fighter ace of WWII is born.

1936 – The first electric generator at Hoover Dam goes into full operation.

1940 – The P-51 Mustang makes its maiden flight.

1942 – Bob Hoskins (Who Framed Roger Rabbit and Hook) is born.

1942 – During World War II: In the Battle of the Santa Cruz Islands during the Guadalcanal Campaign, one U.S. aircraft carrier, USS Hornet, is sunk and another aircraft carrier, USS Enterprise, is heavily damaged.

1944 – During World War II: The Battle of Leyte Gulf ends with an overwhelming American victory.

1946 – Pat Sajak, host of Wheel of Fortune is born.

1947 – Hillary Rodham Clinton, 67th United States Secretary of State, is born.

1947 – Jaclyn Smith, American actress and Charlie’s Angel, is born.

1953 – Keith Strickland, American musician from The B-52’s is born.

1955 – After the last Allied troops have left the country and following the provisions of the Austrian Independence Treaty, Austria declares permanent neutrality.

1956 – Rita Wilson, wife to Tom Hanks and American actress, is born.

1958 – Pan American Airways makes the first commercial flight of the Boeing 707 from New York City to Paris, France.

1959 – The world sees the far side of the Moon for the first time.

1961 – American actor Dylan McDermott is born.

1962 – Cary Elwes (Westley, from The Princess Bride) is born.

1963 – Singer Natalie Merchant is born.

1967 – Singer Keith Urban is born.

1972 – Igor Sikorsky, Russian-American pioneer of aviation in both helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft, dies.

1973 – Animator Seth MacFarlane (Family Guy) is born.

1977 – Jon Heder (Napoleon Dynamite) is born.

1977 – The last natural case of smallpox is discovered in Merca district, Somalia. The WHO and the CDC consider this date the anniversary of the eradication of smallpox, the most spectacular success of vaccination.

1984 – “Baby Fae” receives a heart transplant from a baboon.

1984 – Figure skater and Olympic Silver medalist Sasha Cohen is born.

1985 – Fictional history:  At approximately 1:15 am, Doctor Emmett Brown successfully tests the world’s first time machine, built from the frame of a fully operational DeLorean.

2001 – The United States passes the USA PATRIOT Act into law.

Cheers!