In 1973, Sacheen Littlefeather stepped onto the stage at the 45th Academy Awards and declined Marlon Brando's Best Actor Oscar on his behalf. With this one act, she changed the Oscars – and television and film history – forever.
The actress and Native American rights activist became the first person to make a political statement at the ceremony, sharing that Brando’s refusal of the award was in protest of Hollywood’s portrayal of Native Americans and to draw attention to the standoff that was taking place between activists and the government at Wounded Knee, located on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in southwestern South Dakota.
"People don't realize what my experience was. They had absolutely no idea – none – of what my experience was, what I went through," Littlefeather tells the Academy. "And now, I'm here to tell my story the way that it was from my point of view, from my experience."
Accompanied by Brando’s personal secretary, Alice Marchak, Littlefeather arrived at the Oscars just minutes before Brando would be recognized for his iconic performance as Don Vito Corleone in Francis Ford Coppola's The Godfather. Before taking the stage, she was informed that the 739-word speech Brando had prepared was far too long to be read during the telecast; she would have 60 seconds to condense Brando’s message into a succinct speech.
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 for the last 50 years.
In the years since that momentous day, Littlefeather has continued her activism, as well as a life lived on- and off-screen. She starred in movies like The Trial of Billy Jack (1974), Johnny Firecloud (1975) and Winterhawk (1975), was involved with creating films about Native Americans, and had a lengthy career in healthcare while battling her own health issues. (Littlefeather was diagnosed with stage 4 breast cancer in 2018, which has since metastasized to her right lung.)
On Sept. 17, 2022, the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures will host an evening of conversation, reflection, healing, and celebration with Littlefeather as part of the museum's ongoing dedication to creating programs and exhibitions that illuminate the entertainment industry’s past while paving the way for meaningful change in the future. The evening’s program will feature a land acknowledgment, a reading of a statement of apology from the Academy signed by former President David Rubin in June, conversations, performances, and more.
In addition, this spring, Littlefeather shared her experience with Academy Museum Director and President Jacqueline Stewart for an episode of the Academy Museum Podcast, entitled "Marlon Brando Cannot Accept this Very Generous Award." In June, Littlefeather and Stewart sat down to record a comprehensive Visual History produced by the Academy's Oral History Program and the Academy Museum. The full Visual History will be made publicly accessible in September.
In the interview, Littlefeather, now 75, recalls her life and career, including her friendship with Marlon Brando, that fateful moment at the Oscars, and the legacy she hopes to leave behind.
Jacqueline Stewart: Tell us about the place where you were born.
Sacheen Littlefeather: My mother was white. My father was Native American Indian. I was conceived in Arizona and born in California in November of 1946, just after World War II. The World War may have been over against the Germans and the Japanese, but the war of poverty, disease, abuse, and racism was just beginning for me. … My biological parents were both mentally ill and unable to raise me. I was taken away from my biological parents at age three.
… I was raised white by my maternal grandparents due to economic, educational, survival, and practical circumstances.
When did you first start to realize that you had these interests in being artistic and creative?
Well, my parents were artists. My mother was a pianist. And she, musically, was beautiful. She took all of her feelings out on the piano. And my father was a terrific artist as well as my mother. Painting and drawing and so forth and so on. And the only thing that I could do and express myself is to write, as quiet as it's kept. I really never shared my writings with anybody.
Performing – well, my father was deaf; so, the only way I could communicate with him [was] to act out what I wanted to say to him. And it was very exaggerated. And I think that's when I really started acting out, you know, using all of my body and expressions and everything to communicate with him out of necessity. [And sometimes] I had to speak for him. My mother was very shy, and I had to speak for her; so, I was put in that role. There are many times that, you know, I became the spokesperson. And now it just comes naturally.
What led you to write to Marlon Brando?
Initially with Marlon, there were a lot of people that were going out to Alcatraz Island [during the Indians of All Tribes occupation from 1969 to 1971]. There was people like Anthony Quinn, Jane Fonda… so I wondered, was Marlon Brando going to play an Indian? Is that why he was interested in us? Was he doing research for a film or was he really interested in Native American Indian people for real? So, I wrote him a very sincere letter. On one of my walks up and down the hills of San Francisco, I ran into [my then-neighbor] Francis Ford Coppola sitting on the porch of his house. I said, 'Oh, by the way, I have this letter for Marlon Brando. And you directed him in The Godfather, didn't you?' And he said, 'Yeah.' I said, 'Well, do you think it would be okay if you could read this letter, you know, and I want to get it to him. And, if you think it's okay, would you see that he gets it?' And he said, 'OK.' … Well, a whole year had passed by. One day I was at the station [working at KFRC radio as a public service director] and this mysterious call came through for me. I picked up the phone, and the voice said, 'I bet you don't know who this is, do you?' And I said, 'Yes, I know exactly who this is.' And he said, 'Well, who is it?' I said, 'This is Marlon Brando. It sure took you long enough. You beat Indian time all to hell.' And we both started laughing just like we'd known each other our whole life. And then, we just took off on a conversation like we were best friends for a long time.
Did you talk about acting with him?
No. I never talked about acting with him. Our relationship was not built on the craft of acting or being in films or anything. It was just two people who had a lot in common, who spoke about Indians, politics, activism, culture of Indians, Wounded Knee, movies, films, sports mascots. Everything dealing on that level. And I was very busy with the Affirmative Action Committee for Screen Actors Guild, and working with other minorities, people of color, in that vein.
Take us back through the phone call that you received on March 26th, 1973, the day before the Oscars, when Marlon floated the idea that you would speak for him. What happened that day?
I was surprised as anybody, because I was planning on watching the Academy Awards on television just like everybody else. I was just floored. I said [to Brando], 'Well, I don't have any evening wear.' 'Well, what can you wear?' I said, 'Well, when I dance at pow wows in the Bay Area, I have my buckskin dress, and my moccasins and hair ties.' And Marlon said to me, 'Well, that sounds okay.' And that's what I wore. I packed my suitcase and left for Los Angeles, for his house, where I had visited him before and had been his houseguest. But I didn't know what to expect. I had no idea what to expect. I'd never been to the Academy Awards in my life. I never fraternized with movie stars like that in my life. And I'd never been to a big ceremony like that in my life. It was all new to me.
There wasn't really a great deal that was explained to me, other than the fact that, if he won, I was to go up and refuse it for him. … It must have been Sunday evening, somewhere about maybe 5 or 6 o'clock in the evening, and [his secretary] Alice had to type up his speech. We didn't leave for the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion until after 7. And we really didn't reach there until about 8:30 in the evening. There was only 15 minutes left of the official program. I [told the Oscars producer], 'I'm Marlon Brando's official representative here this evening.' And here I am, an Indian, dressed in an official buckskin dress, with moccasins on my feet and my hair in hair ties. And then, there was his secretary, and [the producer] recognized her. And so, he said, 'Well, okay.' But then, he saw the speech that I had in my hand, and he said, 'Well, you can't read that. We only have so much time left. And, if you read that, I will have you arrested. You will get 60 seconds or less. And you see those police? I will have them officially arrest you. I will have you put in jail. I will have you put in handcuffs. You will be embarrassed. Marlon will be embarrassed. So, you have 60 seconds or less if he should win.' And I had to make him that promise, and I did. I also had made Marlon Brando a promise that I would not touch that Academy Award statue if he should win. So, I had two big promises to keep that night.
I got seated with Brando’s secretary in between a commercial break, and, when the commercial was over, the candidates for the Best Actor for the Academy Awards came on the screen. So, I had very little time to think about, should he win, what will I say? Of course, my heart was rushing. And then, they called out his name. So, I took a couple of deep breaths, and I said a prayer. And I walked up that stairway, and tried not to fall over my buckskin fringes and be as graceful as I possibly could. And I prayed that my ancestors would be with me. I walked as gracefully as I possibly could. And they announced that I was indeed representing Marlon that evening. And I took a deep breath, and then, I said, 'I'm Sacheen Littlefeather. I'm Marlon Brando's official representative here this evening. Unfortunately, he cannot receive this Academy Award because of the image of Native American Indian people in film and television today.' That's when people started booing, and the other half started cheering. And that's when all the people started getting into commotion in the audience. And I focused in on the mouths and the jaws that were dropping open in the audience, and there were quite a few. But it was like looking into a sea of Clorox, you know, there were very few people of color in the audience. And I just took a deep breath, put my head down for a second, and then, when they quieted down, I continued. 'And also because of the recent happenings in Wounded Knee, South Dakota. I had hoped that Marlon's decision would meet with your graciousness and understanding.' And I didn't touch the statue. I left the stage.
[John Wayne] did not like what I was saying up at the podium. So, he came forth in a rage to physically assault and take me off the stage. And he had to be restrained by six security men in order for that not to happen.
It was interesting because some people were giving me the tomahawk chop. I thought, 'This is very racist. Very racist indeed.' And I just gracefully walked and ignored them. They put two armed guards around me, and said they were going to take me to these different press rooms. One was for television press, radio press, and international press. And I would have about 10 minutes in each press room, and that was it. And then, I was escorted out the door.
When you got offstage did you feel that you were in danger, given all of the animosity?
Somewhat, yes. But I was also very naïve because I'd never been in that situation before. … A lot of cheap shots were thrown at me. And there were a lot of rumors, gossip columnists that were trying to make it something that it was not. And I was boycotted from every talk show while people talked about me. I could not and was not allowed to speak for myself. It was as though I was silenced.
What did Marlon Brando say to you when you got back?
Marlon said, 'Congratulations.' He said, 'You did well.' And he was proud of me and proud of my efforts. And we watched on television all the major news channels throughout the world. This was the first time in television history that the Academy Awards was televised outside of the United States of America via satellite throughout the world. So, all of the world's media was watching. And, as a result, the people who were in the newspaper business and the television business outside of the United States descended upon Wounded Knee in South Dakota.
Let us be employed. Let us be ourselves. Let us play ourselves in films. Let us be a part of your industry, producing, directing, writing. Don't write our stories for us. Let us write our own stories. Let us be who we are.
What was the reaction of the people you were close to that you couldn't share this with before?
Well, people like Coretta King, she spoke up for me. Other Indian leaders, like Oren Lyons, who was Chief of the Onondaga; Russell Means, who was one of the American Indian Movement leaders; Dennis Banks, who was one of the American Indian Movement leaders; Cesar Chavez, who was a leader in the Chicano Movement; people like this, who were supporting me. I knew I had done the right thing. And then, everybody else didn't matter, because these were real people.
I knew that I paid the price of admission so that others could follow. That I had done something, that I was the first to make a statement, a political statement. The first Native American Indian woman, the first woman of color to ever make a statement at the Academy Awards, telling the truth about the way that it really is. Not the second, not the third, not the fourth, but the first one - and that will always historically be true.
In time, the doors would be opened. And in time, the things that I wanted back then would become a reality. All we were asking, and I was asking, was 'Let us be employed. Let us be ourselves. Let us play ourselves in films. Let us be a part of your industry, producing, directing, writing. Don't write our stories for us. Let us write our own stories. Let us be who we are.' This is all I was saying.
And yet, it was met with such hostility and anger, and I nearly paid the price with my life as a result. When I went back to Marlon's house, there was an incident with people shooting at me. And there were two bullet holes that came through the doorway of where I was standing, and I was on the other side of it. … It's situations like this that make you really think, you know, what if, what if, what if? And yet, I was never allowed to tell my story. Never. Never. And now, 50 years or so later, and here we are for the first time.
What does it mean to you to be talking about all of this today?
It feels like the sacred circle is completing itself before I go in this life. It feels like a big cleanse, if you will, of mind, body, and spirit, and of heart. It feels that the truth will be known. And it feels like the creator is being good to me.
When I was up there refusing the award, I dreamed about someone like [my niece] Calina. And someone who would break through the barriers and do her own thing, whether doors would be open. And where she would be able to go through them, to be able to make her dreams come true, of singing, of acting and doing. This is what I did. She is the beginning of a whole new agenda. And so, I passed the baton on to her. And I do it gratefully and thankfully.
Editor’s note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
The mission of Academy Oral History Projects is to collect, record, preserve and provide access to personal spoken accounts that provide insight into the history and evolution of the art, science and craft of motion pictures.