Long Before Politics at the Oscars Was a Thing, There Was Sacheen Littlefeather

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Sacheen Littlefeather, the first indigenous person to use the Oscars as a platform to protest the mistreatment of her people, is pictured in 2010.  (Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images)

The night of the 45th Academy Awards, the tuxedo’d and tiara’d denizens of Hollywood expected Marlon Brando to show up on stage and accept his best actor accolade for “The Godfather.”

Instead, they got Sacheen Littlefeather.

From John Legend's stand against incarceration to Patricia Arquette's call for equal pay for women — political statements at the Oscars have become so commonplace in recent times, it’s hard to keep track of them all.

But Littlefeather's actions as the first indigenous person to use the Oscars as a platform to protest the mistreatment of her people in 1973 continue to stand out to this day.

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“Hello, my name is Sacheen Littlefeather," said the 20-something California actress and activist as she stood under the lights. She was dressed in tribal dress and waving several pages of paper covered with typed text Brando had given her to read out that evening. "He has asked me to tell you in a very long speech, which I cannot share with you presently because of time, but I will be glad to share with the press afterwards, that he very regretfully cannot accept this very generous award."

Littlefeather’s face lit up TV sets in more than 24 million homes, as she explained Brando’s decision to boycott the high-profile event and send her in his place.

"And the reasons for this being the treatment of American Indians today by the film industry," she went on against a chorus of boos and cheers. "And on television, in movie reruns and also with recent happenings at Wounded Knee."

Littlefeather, who's half Apache and half white, is now in her seventies. She lives in Novato, a town about an hour north of San Francisco. Her speech about the representation of indigenous people on screen — and the U.S. government's recent suppression of Native American protesters at Wounded Knee on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota — may have been short, but she said it caused an immediate uproar.

"All hell broke loose," she said, recalling the memory of being escorted off stage by a team of security guards when her 60 seconds were up.

Littlefeather said she narrowly avoided getting into a scrap with John Wayne in the wings. He was the biggest name in old-school westerns, which were riddled with negative stereotypes of Native Americans.

"A lot of people were making money off of that racism of the Hollywood Indian," Littlefeather said. "Of course, they’re going to boo. They don't want their evening interrupted."

"People were furious at Marlon Brando, that he had blindsided and ambushed them," said Bay Area-based film critic Michael Fox, who remembers watching the 1973 Oscars as a teenager and seeing the incident recaptured in the papers the next day. "I'm sure the industry took it as a betrayal."

Littlefeather was living in San Francisco as a radio personality and Native American rights activist — she'd participated in the Native occupation of Alcatraz in the late 1960s — when Brando started speaking publicly about his support of Native Americans.

She said she was skeptical at first. So she got her neighbor, director Francis Ford Coppola, to deliver the movie star a letter she wrote that quizzed him about his intentions.

"It took him a year to get back to me," she said. "But eventually he did."

Littlefeather said she could see Brando was sincere from his response. They began a friendship, which led to his request for her to stand in for him at the Oscars.

She said her stand at the 1973 Oscars wasn’t in vain.

"The press showed up in South Dakota," she said. "And they blasted open the story of Wounded Knee."

But it ruined her career in the entertainment industry.

"I was boycotted from that time forward," said the actress, who appeared in a few films — like the 1973 release "Counselor at Crime" — before the work dried up. "I was never allowed on any of the major television shows, major productions of films."

There still aren’t many lead roles for Native Americans today. But things are slowly changing.

Apache actress Sivan Alyra Rose recently became the first indigenous North American to star in a Netflix series,"Chambers," last year. Also in 2019, Cherokee actor Wes Studi won an honorary Academy Award, becoming the first Native American to win an Oscar since songwriter Buffy Sainte-Marie received a nod for her theme song "Up Where We Belong" from the movie "An Officer and a Gentleman" in 1983.

At a recent Commonwealth Club talk in San Francisco, Oglala Lakota film producer Sarah Eagle Heart credited Littlefeather with paving the way for people like her.

"Those of us that had to come afterwards in the industry, I know are grateful for you standing up and fighting for us to have a voice and for our issues to be heard as well," Eagle Heart said.

Littlefeather was a special guest at that event.

"This is one of the reasons why I refused that Academy Award," Littlefeather responded. "I wanted to break barriers. I wanted to see young actresses acting not specifically a cowboy and Indian role but a role being anything on the screen that you want to be."

Littlefeather shares information about her life, activism and pioneering stand at the 45th Academy Awards in the recently released documentary, "Sacheen, Breaking the Silence."