Sacheen Littlefeather, who famously stepped onto the stage at the 45th Academy Awards and declined Marlon Brando's Best Actor Oscar on his behalf, died on Oct. 2 at her home in Novato, California. She was 75. Littlefeather had been diagnosed with stage 4 breast cancer in 2018.
Littlefeather was born on November 14, 1946 in Salinas, CA as the eldest daughter of Geroldine and Manuel Cruz (Apache/Yaqui of Arizona). She was raised by her maternal grandparents, Gerold and Marie Barnitz, whose family came over from Ellis Island in the 1800s.
She attended North Salinas High School and went on to attend Junior College at Hartnell. She eventually went on to graduate as valedictorian from Antioch University with a Bachelors of Sciences in holistic health and nutrition, with a minor in traditional Indian medicine (the study of herbology).
She was a model and an actress, a member of both the Red Earth Theater Company and the Screen Actors Guild. She was known for her roles in The Trial of Billy Jack (1974), Johnny Firecloud (1975) and Winterhawk (1975).
In 1973, Littlefeather attended the 45th Oscars to decline Brando's Best Actor award for his performance in The Godfather. She became the first person to make a political statement at the ceremony, sharing that Brando's refusal of the Oscar was in protest of Hollywood’s portrayal of Native Americans over the years and to draw attention to the standoff that was taking place at the time between activists and the government at Wounded Knee, located on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in southwestern South Dakota.
Littlefeather, then 26, was met with a mix of applause and boos — and even physical aggression from John Wayne in the wings of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. This moment resulted in her being professionally boycotted, personally attacked and harassed, and discriminated against in the decades that followed.
In June of this year, Littlefeather was presented with a statement of apology, signed by former Academy President David Rubin. Read the full apology here.
"I write to you today a letter that has been a long time coming on behalf of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, with humble acknowledgment of your experience at the 45th Academy Awards," the apology reads. "As you stood on the Oscars stage in 1973 to not accept the Oscar on behalf of Marlon Brando, in recognition of the misrepresentation and mistreatment of Native American people by the film industry, you made 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. 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," the letter of apology continues.
On Sept. 17, the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures hosted an evening of conversation, reflection, healing, and celebration with Littlefeather. The night's program featured a land acknowledgment and a reading of the statement of apology from Rubin.
"In 1973, I was a 26-year-old indigenous woman and a member of the Screen Actors Guild," Littlefeather said onstage during An Evening with Sacheen Littlefeather. "Very few people of color were finding their way through an impractical society that deliberately set out to erase the existence and diversity of Native peoples. Through genocide, oppression, and the unwavering efforts for Indian self-determination, our generation remained hard at work. And we were not the only ones.
"In 1973, I fulfilled the request of a friend and an ally," she said. "I knew the impact and the importance of representing all Native people on that night." She continued, "I more than anyone know the impact of what 60 seconds at the Academy Awards can mean then and now, 50 years later. I have developed a strong sense of self, community, and a good sense of humor. Laughter is good medicine."
"When I am gone, always be reminded that whenever you stand for your truth, you will be keeping my voice and the voices of our nations and our people alive," she concluded. "I remain Sacheen Littlefeather. Thank you."
Littlefeather's funeral will be held later this month at St. Rita Church in Fairfax, California. She will be buried next to her husband, Charles Koshiway, at the Otoe-Missouria Cemetery in Red Rock, Oklahoma.
In lieu of flowers, Littlefeather requested that all donations be made to the American Indian Child Resource Center.
For more on Littlefeather and her legacy, watch the video below.