The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has formally apologized to Sacheen Littlefeather, the Native American woman who famously took to the Oscars stage in 1973 on behalf of Marlon Brando and refused to accept the Best Actor prize in protest against Hollywood’s depictions of Indigenous people.
Littlefeather, now 75, was heckled and subjected to racist abuse from the audience during her speech, recalling later that Western film star John Wayne had to be restrained from rushing the stage to attack her. She said she was essentially blacklisted as an actor after the incident.
“The abuse you endured because of this statement was unwarranted and unjustified,” then–academy president David Rubin wrote in a letter to Littlefeather on June 18, which was shared with media on Monday. “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.”
Littlefeather was just 26 when she appeared onstage on behalf of Brando, who won for his performance as Vito Corleone in The Godfather. In the event of his win, he had asked her not to touch the statue and to read a pages-long statement on his behalf. In it, Brando criticized Native American stereotypes in popular entertainment and drew attention to the 1973 Wounded Knee standoff between indigenous people and the US Marshals Service.
But producers warned her that if she exceeded 60 seconds she would be arrested by their security, so instead she improvised short remarks that were interrupted by boos and some making “tomahawk” gestures.
“[Brando] 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 — and on television in movie reruns, and also with recent happenings at Wounded Knee,” she said.
She subsequently read Brando’s text to reporters backstage.
In giving the historic speech, Littlefeather also became the first Native American woman to stand on the Oscars stage.
She told the Hollywood Reporter, which was first to publish Monday’s news, that she cried several minutes after first being read the apology letter almost a half-century since the famous incident.
“Yes, there’s an apology that’s due,” she said. “As my friends in the Native community said, it’s long overdue.”