Sacheen Littlefeather, who has died in her home state of California, achieved a great deal in her 75 years. In 1970 she joined the occupation of Alcatraz island — an attempt to reclaim that land for Native American peoples. She was a staff member of the American Indian Center. She spoke out against the use of Native American caricatures as sports mascots. She was involved with the American Indian Registry for Performing Arts. During the 1980s, she was active in the fight against Aids in San Francisco. It was a full life dedicated to important causes.
She will have been aware, however, that all obituaries would lead with a two-minute incident in 1973. It was she who stepped on to the stage of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion and declined to accept Marlon Brando’s Oscar from Roger Moore and Liv Ullman.
The actor, nominated for The Godfather, was boycotting the event in protest at Hollywood’s treatment of Native Americans. Only La La Land being wrongly announced as winner and this year’s contretemps involving Will Smith and Chris Rock compete with that for the title of Oscar’s most memorable moment. But Littlefeather’s experience is by far the most culturally significant.
Booing warred with applause during her dignified speech. Later on in the ceremony, Clint Eastwood responded with a cheap dig about the Indians killed in John Ford movies. Dispute still rages as to whether “six security men” really had to restrain John Wayne — a 65-year-old man who had recently had a lung removed — from rushing the stage, but the kickback against Littlefeather was real.
Her Native American heritage was questioned (her father was of Apache and Yaqui stock). Playboy dug up nude photographs and spread them across a 1973 edition. An apparent blacklist shutdown her nascent acting career.
Even at the time, it was observed that Marlon Brando, the person most responsible for the protest, received nothing like so much complaint and not a touch of the ostracism. “I was distressed that people should have booed and whistled and stomped, even though perhaps it was directed at myself,” Brando told the talkshow host Dick Cavett. “They should have at least had the courtesy to listen to her.” It takes no radical edge to conclude that racism and sexism were at work here.
As it transpired, the film community made its effort to set things right with only a few weeks to spare. The world was aware that she had a long history of cancer when the Academy issued an apology in June of this year. “The abuse you endured because of this statement was unwarranted and unjustified,” David Rubin, outgoing president, wrote. “The emotional burden you have lived through and the cost to your own career in our industry are irreparable.”
She could die in the knowledge that her story had helped shift attitudes in an industry that was, in 1973, still struggling with the social and political changes of the 1960s
Last month, Littlefeather was still well enough to attend an in-person presentation of the apology at the Academy’s recently unveiled museum. Speaking to Variety magazine, she reflected soberly on what was coming. “When we die, we know that our ancestors are coming to give,” she said. “We know that we’re going to that spirit world from where we came. We take this as a warrior with pride and not defeat, looking forward to joining our ancestors who are going to be there with us at our last breath.”
She could die in the knowledge that her story had helped shift attitudes in an industry that was, in 1973, still struggling with the social and political changes of the 1960s. The rejection of Brando’s Oscar did some good in highlighting the injustices heaped on the first Americans. Equally as important was the way her subsequent battles highlighted how establishment structures tighten to stifle even the most polite forms of resistance. Jada Pinkett Smith was among those citing her as an influence during protests against the #OscarsSoWhite dispute in 2016.
She died as an inspiration.