Brando, Fonda and Beyond: How Celebs Rallied Around the Alcatraz Occupation

At the 1973 Academy Awards, Sacheen Littlefeather refuses the Academy Award for Best Actor on behalf of Marlon Brando who won for his role in The Godfather. She carries a letter from Brando in which he explains he refused the award in protest of American treatment of the Native Americans.

It was a moment that would become seared into American cultural history. Sacheen Littlefeather, an Apache and the President of the National Native American Affirmative Image Committee, stepped onto the 1973 Academy Awards stage, and very politely refused to take Marlon Brando's Best Actor Oscar for The Godfather, from a bemused-looking Roger Moore.

When Littlefeather calmly explained that Brando was unable to "accept this very generous award" because of "the treatment of American Indians today by the film industry and on television in movie re-runs," boos immediately erupted in some corners of the room. Littlefeather stayed calm, offering a simple "Excuse me," before audience cheers drowned out the objections.

It had been two years since the "Indians of All Tribes" had ceased their 19-month occupation of Alcatraz, but Brando had visited the island during that period and become so deeply concerned about the Native American cause, he remained outspoken on their behalf for the rest of his life.

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"I don’t think that people generally realize what the motion picture industry has done to the American Indian," Brando told Dick Cavett in 1973. "How deeply these people are injured… Children… seeing Indians represented as savage, vicious, ugly, nasty, treacherous, drunken. They grow up with only a negative image of themselves and it lasts a lifetime."

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Brando's engagement was a perfect example of how support for Native rights underwent a momentous and visible shift during one of the most socially turbulent times in recent American history. "For centuries, most Americans and their government believed Indians were an obstacle to national progress or, by the mid-twentieth century, anachronisms which had no place in the modern world," writes Sherry L. Smith in Hippies, Indians and the Fight For Red Power. "Extinguishing all remnants of native life characterized federal policy by the 1950s. By the 1960s, they found support outside their communities."

A major factor in garnering that support was the Alcatraz occupation and the celebrities who went out of their way to draw attention to it and offer financial support. Creedence Clearwater Revival, for example, donated $10,000 that, among other things, enabled activists to buy a boat (reportedly dubbed "The Clearwater") to get supplies to and from the island.

Jane Fonda also spent a night on Alcatraz, reportedly bringing her own sleeping bag, smoking weed with the occupiers, and donating a rototiller for gardening, as well as six generators—much needed at the time, after Alcatraz's power was cut by the General Services Administration.

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"She got on the Indian bandwagon, but did not come to Alcatraz empty-handed like a lot of big shots," a Blackfoot activist named Morris later noted of Fonda. "She was an answer to the Alcatraz Indian prayers, giving us some light and refrigeration."

Fonda subsequently visited Sacramento's State Assembly to support a resolution to turn Alcatraz into a Native American cultural center. The measure passed but was later defeated in the Senate.

Because of this kind of celebrity involvement, prominent talk shows got on board too. Dick Cavett talked about the occupation, and Grace Thorpe, the negotiator and PR person for the Alcatraz protesters was a guest on the Merv Griffin Show. Griffin also filmed a short segment on the island.

While most of the occupation's famous supporters made perfect sense—a visit from comedian and civil rights activist Dick Gregory shocked no-one, Gregory having previously gone to jail for supporting "fish-in" protests by Pacific-Northwest tribes—others were more surprising.

'Flap' starred Anthony Quinn and referenced the Alcatraz occupation in its promotional materials.
'Flap' starred Anthony Quinn and referenced the Alcatraz occupation in its promotional materials.

Anthony Quinn took a break from filming Flap near Stockton, to make a high profile visit to the island. As an actor of Mexican-Irish descent who played Native Americans throughout his movie career, Quinn's position was, by 2019 standards, a problematic one. Flap itself was based on a book titled Nobody Loves a Drunken Indian, written by Clair Huffaker, a white man who traditionally wrote about the Old West.

But the movie took major steps to sympathize with the plight of marginalized indigenous people and set Quinn's Flapping Eagle character up as a hero facing impossible odds. Promotion for the movie capitalized on the Alcatraz occupation, with posters that read: "A warning to the Mayor: Flap is here! The Indians have already claimed Alcatraz. City Hall may be next. You have been warned."

After his Alcatraz visit, Quinn, who financially contributed to Native American causes, told a press conference he was impressed by the occupiers' aims. "Alcatraz is a small price," he said, "for all the sins we committed and indignities we forced on the Indians."

Back on the mainland, the counterculture was rallying too. On December 12, 1969, a benefit for the occupiers took place at Stanford’s Memorial Chapel, headlined by Buffy Sainte-Marie. (The singer went on to be the first indigenous person to win an Academy Award, for writing 1982's "Up Where We Belong.")

In addition, Berkeley's Malvina Reynolds (most famous for writing the hit "Little Boxes") donated $1,000 in royalties from her song "Alcatraz (Pelican Island)" towards the San Francisco American Indian Center, which had burned down shortly before the occupation began. “Alcatraz isn’t good enough for them," Reynolds noted at the time, "but it certainly is a first step.”

As noted in Hippies, Indians and the Fight For Red Power, much of the progress made for Native visibility in the '70s may not have occurred without the protesters' time on the island, and the high profile support it prompted. “In terms of capturing national and even international attention," the book states. "Alcatraz stands out as a critical turning point for Indian reform. It provided the opportunity and the focus for non-Indian supporters to find a place and a purpose to which they could contribute.”

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For both activists and progressively-minded celebrities, it stands as a rousing and inspiring example to this day.

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