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Sacheen Littlefeather, the Native American actor and activist who famously excoriated Hollywood’s depiction of Indigenous people at the Oscars as she rejected the Best Actor award on Marlon Brando’s behalf, has died at 75.
Her death was announced by the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences on Sunday night. The Washington Post reported that her niece and caregiver Calina Lawrence said she died of breast cancer. In a documentary about her life released last year, Littlefeather had revealed that she had stage four breast cancer.
The actor’s career was inextricably affected by her appearance onstage at the 1973 Oscars. There on behalf of Brando, Littlefeather, wearing an Apache buckskin dress, walked onstage and declined the Best Actor award for his role in The Godfather.
“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,” she said. “And the reasons for this being are the treatment of American Indians today by the film industry – excuse me — and on television in movie reruns, and also with recent happenings at Wounded Knee.”
Her speech was interrupted by boos and people in the audience making “tomahawk” gestures. She said that the actor John Wayne had to be restrained by security to prevent him from assaulting her onstage, and later on, that the FBI essentially had her blacklisted in Hollywood.
Littlefeather told Variety that she and Brando intended for her speech to break the media blackout on the Wounded Knee siege in 1973, when the Oglala Lakota and members of the American Indian Movement occupied Wounded Knee, South Dakota, and had a standoff with law enforcement agencies.
“I went up there thinking I could make a difference,” she told People in 1990. “I was very naive. I told people about oppression. They said, ‘You’re ruining our evening.'”
Born in Salinas, California, to an Apache and Yaqui father and a white mother, Littlefeather was raised by her maternal grandparents. She had a difficult childhood, including being diagnosed with tuberculosis at age 3, and dealt with “a lot of racism” at the white Catholic school she was sent to, she told the Guardian.
Littlefeather became an active advocate for Native American rights in her late teens and early 20s. She also appeared in TV commercials and worked at a radio station in San Francisco.
She told the Guardian that she wrote Brando a letter after hearing him talk about Indigenous rights and got his address from her neighbor at the time, Francis Ford Coppola.
They became friends and talked on the phone regularly, she said.
Littlefeather went on to study holistic health and nutrition and became a health consultant after her lungs collapsed in her late 20s. During the AIDS epidemic, she cared for patients at a hospice founded by Mother Teresa.
She mostly lived outside the public eye after the backlash from her appearance at the Oscars. This year, nearly four decades later, the Academy formally apologized to her for the racist abuse she received because of her speech.
“The abuse you endured because of this statement was unwarranted and unjustified,” then–Academy president David Rubin wrote in a letter to Littlefeather. “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.”
The Academy also held a special event on Sept. 17 in her honor in conjunction with its apology.
“I am here accepting this apology,” she said at the event. “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.”
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