Sacheen Littlefeather made Oscars history in 1973 when she became the first Indigenous woman to take the podium at the awards ceremony. When Marlon Brando was named Best Actor for “The Godfather,” Littlefeather declined the award on his behalf, because he boycotted the Oscars in protest of Hollywood’s portrayal of Native Americans. She was escorted from the stage with both booing and cheering.
But her 60 seconds Oscar speech was life-changing for her, as well as for others. “Unfortunately, he cannot accept this most generous award,” Littlefeather said in her 1973 address to an audience of millions. “And the reasons for this are the treatment of American Indians today by the film industry … and on television in movie reruns, and also with recent events at Wounded Knee.”
Now, 50 years later, Littlefeather has received a letter of apology from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. And this weekend, the Academy is hosting “An Evening With Sacheen Littlefeather,” billed as a “very special program of conversation, reflection, healing, and celebration.”
In an interview with VarietyLittlefeather thinks back to that Oscar night and says she’d do it all again “in an instant.” She gave the speech, she says, not just to Brando — who was a noted Native American ally — but to her people and the racial injustice they had suffered. She also discusses her claim that she heard John Wayne tried to run onto the stage before being intercepted by security, and her friendship with Brando.
When you think back to that night when you stood on the podium and gave this powerful and historic speech, how did you feel immediately afterwards?
I had looked [the Oscars] like everyone else, on TV, but that was the first time at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. It was my first time at the Academy Awards. I got through my first hurdle and promised Marlon Brando I wouldn’t touch that Oscar. But when I walked off that platform, I did so in the ways of honoring courage, grace, dignity, and truthfulness. I did it the way of my ancestors and the way of native women.
I was confronted with the stereotypical tomahawk cutlet, individuals calling out to me, and I ignored them all. I kept walking straight ahead with some armed guards beside me, holding my head high and proud to be the first Native woman in Academy Awards history to make that political statement.
At that time, in 1973, there was a media blackout on Wounded Knee and against the American Indian Movement occupying it. Marlon had called them in advance and asked if they wanted to watch the Academy Awards, which they did. If they saw me onstage denying the Academy Award for the stereotypes of the movie industry and mentioning Wounded Knee in South Dakota, it would break the media boycott.
Everyone wants to know the true story of what happened there, but it thwarted the FBI’s plans. Sometimes, if you don’t like the message, as they say in Rome, you try to kill the messenger. The FBI had plans to catch all those AIM stars [American Indian Movement members] like Dennis Banks and my brothers Russell Means and Oren Lyons to a place like Guantanamo Bay. They would never be heard from again, but it wasn’t because of my speech.
There were further talks, Oren told me, that the United States government planned to build some sort of military base there on the reservation and that the speech also thwarted the plans. There was much disruption to plans that fell through as a result of that speech.
In the documentary ‘Sacheen Breaking the Silence’ you talk about people trying to get on stage and mention the oft-repeated story of John Wayne being restrained. What do you remember about that moment?
I heard a disturbance from behind me as I spoke on stage. I found out that he had been stopped by six security men from attacking me while I was on that podium. That was the most violent moment that had ever happened at the Academy Awards.
So you heard about it from a security guard?
Yes, but it was never published. He was never admonished by the Academy. It never appeared in the press. But the most violent moments happened then and there at John Wayne’s Academy Awards.
Way back when I did that, I was boycotted by the FBI. They went around Hollywood telling people not to hire me. If they did, they would stop their film production. In addition, other people were allowed on talk shows like Johnny Carson, Merv Griffin and other popular talk shows. They could go on there and talk about me, but I was never allowed to go into them and represent myself.
In addition, that 60-second piece of film has been kept hidden and not shown to the general public. It was not immediately available. Two generations later it became available to the public. People started asking questions. What was all that about? Who is that woman? And people asked, “Why is she doing that?” So it resurfaced.
And when the [Academy] Museum included Native American Indian people on the board of directors, things started to move forward. I’m here to see a letter, 50 years later, this apology – it was something I never expected and it came as a total surprise to me.
Marlon Brando was a well-known ally of the Native American and Indigenous community. What does alliance look like to you?
My friendship with Marlon Brando was based on mutual interest. I didn’t know Marlon Brando as an actor. It was focused on Native American indigenous issues. I was not one of his love interests, far from it. I enjoyed talking to him. We had a great laugh together. Sometimes we would sit together, talk and just laugh at ourselves. He is also a great prankster. In addition, he had a kinship with Indians that goes back a long way. I appreciated his friendship and his ability to see through the nonsense and prejudice. He understood racial prejudice in a way that most people don’t, and that was refreshing to me.
If you know everything you know now, if you had to do it all over again, would you still go on stage and accept Marlon Brando’s Oscar?
In the blink of an eye. I didn’t quite do this for Marlon. I did not do this on my own behalf. I did this for all indigenous people everywhere who suffered from racial prejudice and discrimination. I did it for all those born under the umbrella of genocide, in the United States and Canada, and for all of us who have suffered from extreme stereotypes that were not our choice.
Should Hollywood use platforms like the Academy Awards to make more political statements?
I can’t speak for other people, but people have to look into their hearts. They have to see what suits them, what they say and what they do. It’s not for me to judge, so I can’t make a statement on their behalf. All I know is that… I am not angry, hateful or hostile to anyone, including the Academy and the John Waynes of the world. I am not a rich person. I am poor. I don’t have much, but I do what I can. I try not to judge others. So what other people want to do and what they feel in their hearts, they have to do.