Sacheen Littlefeather made history in 1973 when she turned down the Academy Award for Best Actor on behalf of “The Godfather” winner Marlon Brando. Almost 50 years later, Indigenous activist Littlefeather is now also cementing her record on Hollywood representation: She’s now one of the few people in history to ever receive a formal apology from the Academy.
“As you stood on the Oscars stage in 1973 to not accept the Oscar on behalf of Marlon Brando, in recognition of the misrepresentation and mistreatment of Native American people by the film industry, you made a powerful statement that continues to remind us of the necessity of respect and the importance of human dignity,” a letter signed by former Academy President David Rubin stated, as addressed June 18.
Littlefeather will also be the guest of honor at “an evening of healing and Indigenous celebration” hosted by the Academy Museum in Los Angeles on September 17.
The letter continues, “The abuse you endured because of this statement was unwarranted and unjustified. 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 abuse targeted at a then 26-year-old Littlefeather included being booed and heckled onstage at the Oscars, as well as racial slurs, threats of arrest (including from show producer Howard Koch if she went over the 60-second time limit), and physical violence.
At the time, Littlefeather paraphrased Brando’s eight pages of prepared remarks due to the time limit. “[Brando] very regretfully cannot accept this very generous award,” Littlefeather said onstage in 1973. “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.”
Littlefeather’s reference to the protest at Wounded Knee also in part “resulted in her being professionally boycotted, personally attacked and harassed, and discriminated against for the last 50 years,” an Academy statement read.
“Regarding the Academy’s apology to me, we Indians are very patient people—it’s only been 50 years! We need to keep our sense of humor about this at all times. It’s our method of survival,” Littlefeather said in the Academy announcement. “I never thought I’d live to see the day for this program to take place, featuring such wonderful Native performers and Bird Runningwater, a television and film producer who also guided the Sundance Institute’s commitment to Indigenous filmmakers for twenty years through the Institute’s Labs and Sundance Film Festival. This is a dream come true. It is profoundly heartening to see how much has changed since I did not accept the Academy Award 50 years ago. I am so proud of each and every person who will appear on stage.”
Per Littlefeather, Western genre star John Wayne had to be physically restrained from storming the stage, presumably to assault her. She also said that the federal government threatened to shut down any productions she was part of that would nationally air.
The full apology statement from the Academy will be read during the Academy Museum event honoring Littlefeather, who will be in conversation with producer Bird Runningwater (Cheyenne/Mescalero Apache/N.M.), co-chair of the Academy’s Indigenous Alliance. Runningwater first reached out to Littlefeather, along with Academy Inclusion Advisory Committee member Heather Rae, to record an episode for the Academy Museum podcast as well as partake in the visual history for the Academy Oral History Projects, to be released in September.
An Evening with Sacheen Littlefeather will be free to the public via online reservations and will also include land acknowledgments by Virginia Carmelo (Tongva/S. Calif.) and performances by traditional vocalist and singer Calina Lawrence (Suquamish/Wash.), the San Manuel Bird Singers (San Manuel/Calif.), Michael Bellanger (Ojibiway/Minn. and Kickapoo/Okla.) and the All Nation Singers and Dancers and Steve Bohay (Kiowa/Okla.), and the Sooner Nation Singers and Dancers, as well as remarks from Rubin and incoming Academy president Janet Yang, Academy CEO Bill Kramer and Assemblymember James Ramos (Serrano/Cahuilla/So. Calif.). Academy Museum director and president Jacqueline Stewart and Earl Neconie (Kiowa/Okla.) will emcee the evening.
As for Native American representation onscreen, Littlefeather told THR, “At long last, somebody is breaking down the doors. And I’m so very happy this is happening – even though I don’t swear like they do on ‘Reservation Dogs.'”
Below, read the Academy’s full statement of reconciliation to Sacheen Littlefeather:
June 18, 2022
Dear Sacheen Littlefeather,
As you stood on the Oscars stage in 1973 to not accept the Oscar on behalf of Marlon Brando, in recognition of the misrepresentation and mistreatment of Native American people by the film industry, you made a powerful statement that continues to remind us of the necessity of respect and the importance of human dignity.
The abuse you endured because of this statement was unwarranted and unjustified. 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.
We cannot realize the Academy’s mission to “inspire imagination and connect the world through cinema” without a commitment to facilitating the broadest representation and inclusion reflective of our diverse global population.
Today, nearly 50 years later, and with the guidance of the Academy’s Indigenous Alliance, we are firm in our commitment to ensuring indigenous voices—the original storytellers—are visible, respected contributors to the global film community. We are dedicated to fostering a more inclusive, respectful industry that leverages a balance of art and activism to be a driving force for progress.
We hope you receive this letter in the spirit of reconciliation and as recognition of your essential role in our journey as an organization. You are forever respectfully engrained in our history.
With warmest regards,
President, Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences