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. (Bettmann / Getty Images)
Nearly 50 years after Sacheen Littlefeather stood on the Academy Awards stage on behalf of Marlon Brando to speak about the depiction of Native Americans in Hollywood films, the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences apologized to her for the abuse she endured.
On Aug. 15, the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures said that it will host Littlefeather, now 75, for an evening of “conversation, healing and celebration” on Sept. 17.
When Brando won best actor for The Godfather, Littlefeather, wearing buckskin dress and moccasins, took the stage, becoming the first Native American woman ever to do so at the Academy Awards. In a 60-second speech, she explained that Brando could not accept the award due to “the treatment of American Indians today by the film industry.”
Some in the audience booed her. John Wayne, who was backstage at the time, was reportedly furious. The 1973 Oscars were held during the American Indian Movement’s two-month occupation of Wounded Knee in South Dakota. In the years since, Littlefeather has said she’s been mocked, discriminated against and personally attacked for her brief Academy Awards appearance.
In making the announcement, the Academy Museum shared a letter sent June 18 to Littlefeather by David Rubin, academy president, about the iconic Oscar moment. Rubin called Littlefeather’s speech “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,” wrote Rubin. “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, in a statement, said it is “profoundly heartening to see how much has changed since I did not accept the Academy Award 50 years ago.”
“Regarding the Academy’s apology to me, we Indians are very patient people—it’s only been 50 years!” said Littlefeather. “We need to keep our sense of humor about this at all times. It’s our method of survival.”
At the Academy Museum event in Los Angeles, Littlefeather will sit for a conversation with producer Bird Runningwater, co-chair of the academy’s Indigenous Alliance.
In a podcast earlier this year with Jacqueline Stewart, a film scholar and director of the Academy Museum, Littlefeather reflected on what compelled her to speak out in 1973.
“I felt that there should be Native people, Black people, Asian people, Chicano people—I felt there should be an inclusion of everyone,” said Littlefeather. “A rainbow of people that should be involved in creating their own image.”