Sacheen Littlefeather Says John Wayne Tried to ‘Physically Assault’ Her at the 1973 Oscars

Littlefeather said that Wayne tried to approach her after she turned down Marlon Brando's Best Actor award for "The Godfather" on the Oscars stage.
Native American Sacheen Littlefeather speaks at the 45th Academy Awards. On behalf of Marlon Brando, she refused the Best Actor award he was awarded for his role in Godfather. Brando refused the award because of the treatment by the Americans of the American Indian.
Sacheen Littlefeather
Bettmann Archive

Almost 50 years later and Native American activist Sacheen Littlefeather is reliving the abuse she endured at the 1973 Academy Awards.

Littlefeather made history as the first Native American woman to stand on the Oscars stage when she turned down the Academy Award for Best Actor on behalf of “The Godfather” winner Marlon Brando. At the time, the controversial statement incited both booing and cheering at the awards ceremony.

“I focused in on the mouths and the jaws that were dropping open in the audience, and there were quite a few,” Littlefeather recalled in an interview with the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. “But it was like looking into a sea of Clorox, you know, there were very few people of color in the audience. And I just took a deep breath, put my head down for a second, and then, when they quieted down, I continued.”

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences recently issued a formal apology to Littlefeather for the “unwarranted and unjustified” reaction at the ceremony almost a half-century prior. “The emotional burden you have lived through and the cost to your own career in our industry are irreparable,” the Academy penned. “For too long the courage you showed has been unacknowledged. For this, we offer both our deepest apologies and our sincere admiration.”

Yet it was one Academy member whom Littlefeather distinctly remembers had a violent reaction to her speech citing the mistreatment of Native people by the film industry and the protest at Wounded Knee. Western genre star John Wayne approached Littlefeather after she left the stage, leading Littlefeather to fear for her safety.

“[John Wayne] did not like what I was saying up at the podium,” Littlefeather explained. “So, he came forth in a rage to physically assault and take me off the stage. And he had to be restrained by six security men in order for that not to happen.”

As for other attendees, Littlefeather said, “It was interesting because some people were giving me the tomahawk chop. I thought, ‘This is very racist. Very racist indeed.’ And I just gracefully walked and ignored them.”

Littlefeather exited the premises with two armed guards. Now, Littlefeather is set to join the Academy September 17 for a special program and conversation titled “An Evening with Sacheen Littlefeather” as part of a celebration for “an evening of healing and Indigenous celebration” hosted by the Academy Museum in Los Angeles.

“We are delighted and humbled that Sacheen has so generously chosen to engage with the museum and Academy to reflect upon her trying experience at the 1973 Academy Awards,” Jacqueline Stewart, director and president of the Academy Museum, said.

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