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Actress and activist who declined Marlon Brando’s 1973 Oscar, Sacheen Littlefeather

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Academy Awards
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Sacheen Littlefeather declining to accept the Best Actor Award for Marlon Brando at the 1973 Oscars.

In honor of Native American Heritage month, KUNM is paying tribute to the rich ancestry and traditions of our First Nation people by highlighting prominent Native American figures. One who claimed Native American ancestry was an actress who stirred controversy for declining Marlon Brando’s 1973 Oscar.

Actor and activist Sacheen Littlefeather took the stage at the Academy Awards that year representing actor Marlon Brando and declined on his behalf to accept the Oscar for Best Actor for “The Godfather.”

Littlefeather was dressed in a beaded buckskin dress. Amid a chorus of boos, she spoke out on the mistreatment of Native Americans by the film industry and highlighted the ongoing occupation of Wounded Knee Memorial by the American Indian Movement.

"He very regretfully cannot accept this very generous award and the reason for this being are the treatment of American Indians today by the film industry, excuse me, and on television, in movie reruns and also with recent happenings on Wounded Knee, " she said during the ceremony.

The speech caused such an outcry that Littlefeather told reporters John Wayne had to be held back to prevent him from attacking her on stage. She later said her act of defiance against Hollywood blacklisted her, and her acting career was never the same.

Littlefeather became an activist and even participated in the occupation of Alcatraz Island in 1969, which protested the erosion of Native American rights.

She claimed she was a descendant of the White Mountain Apache and Yaqui tribes. But since her death earlier this year, controversy has surfaced about whether Littlefeather was actually Native American. Her sister Rosalind Cruz told the New York Post that she and her family were in fact not Native American and have no Indigenous ancestry.

She claimed that Sacheen changed her last name Cruz to surname Littlefeather by the way their father would describe Sacheen dancing around the living room like a ‘little feather.’ Cruz says the reason Littlefeather claimed being Native American was as a way to make it into Hollywood as an actor.

In one of her last interviews, Littlefeather told the San Francisco Chronicle that the reason she took to the stage that night in 1973 was because, “I spoke my heart, not for me, myself, as an Indian woman but for we and us, for all Indian people … I had to speak the truth. Whether or not it was accepted, it had to be spoken on behalf of Native people.”

In August, the Motion Picture Academy officially apologized to Sacheen Littlefeather for the abuse she received that night and the boycott that followed her career. The then-president of the Academy, David Rubin, sent Littlefeather a letter of apology where he wrote the harassment she suffered was “unwarranted and unjustified.”

Despite questions around Littlefeather's legitimacy of her Native American heritage, her act of defiance in the 1973 Oscars remains a groundbreaking moment for Native Americans.

Sources: 
Sacheen Littlefeather’s speech at the 1973 Oscars for Marlon Brando- YouTube

Sacheen Littlefeather and the Question of Native Identity- New York Times

Sacheen Littlefeather was a Native American icon. Her sisters say she was an ethnic fraud- San Francisco Chronicle

‘I spoke my heart’: Sacheen Littlefeather revisits notorious 1973 Oscar speech — days before her death- San Francisco Chronicle

Sacheen Littlefeather ‘lied’ about being Apache to work in Hollywood: sister- New York Post

Academy apologizes to Sacheen Littlefeather for mistreatment over 1973 Oscar protest- NPR

Jeanette DeDios is from the Jicarilla Apache and Diné Nations and grew up in Albuquerque, NM. She recently graduated from the University of New Mexico in 2022 where she earned a bachelor’s degree in Multimedia Journalism, English and Film. She’s currently a part of the Local News Fund Fellowship where she will be working with KUNM-FM and NMPBS during her 9-month fellowship where she will gain hands-on newsroom experience. Jeanette can be contacted at jeanettededios@kunm.org or via Twitter @JeanetteDeDios.
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