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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Sacheen Littlefeather, activist who rejected Brando’s Oscar, dies at 75

Sacheen Littlefeather at an Academy event last month in Los Angeles. She had said that she was “representing all Indigenous voices out there” when she refused the Oscar on behalf of the actor Marlon Brando.

By Eduardo Medina

Sacheen Littlefeather, the Apache activist and actress who refused to accept the best actor award on behalf of Marlon Brando at the 1973 Oscars, drawing jeers onstage in an act that underscored her criticism of Hollywood’s depictions of Native Americans, died Sunday at her home in Marin County, California. She was 75.

Her death was announced in a statement by her family and by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Last year, Littlefeather confirmed on Facebook that she had breast cancer — “stage four, terminal” — that had spread to a lung.

Her death came just weeks after the Academy apologized to Littlefeather for her treatment during the Oscars. In an interview with The Hollywood Reporter in August, she said she was “stunned” by the apology.

“I never thought I’d live to see the day I would be hearing this, experiencing this,” she said.

When Littlefeather, then 26, held up her right hand that night inside the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in Los Angeles — signaling to the award presenters, the audience and the millions watching on TV that she, acting on Brando’s request, had no desire to ceremoniously accept the shiny golden statue — it marked one of the best-known disruptive moments in the history of the Oscars.

“I beg at this time that I have not intruded upon this evening, and that we will, in the future, our hearts and our understandings, will meet with love and generosity,” Littlefeather said at the podium, having endured a chorus of boos and some cheers from the crowd.

Her appearance at the 45th Academy Awards was the first time a Native American woman had stood onstage at the ceremony, she in a glimmering buckskin dress, moccasins and hair ties. But the backlash and criticism was immediate. John Wayne was so unsettled that a show producer, Marty Pasetta, said security guards had to restrain him so that he would not storm the stage.

Littlefeather told The Hollywood Reporter in August, “When I was at the podium in 1973, I stood there alone.”

She was born Marie Cruz on Nov. 14, 1946, in Salinas, California. Her father was from the White Mountain Apache and Yaqui tribes in Arizona; her mother was of French, German and Dutch lineage, according to Littlefeather’s website. After high school she took the name Sacheen Littlefeather to “reflect her natural heritage,” the site states.

Information on her survivors was not immediately available.

Littlefeather’s website said she had participated in the Native American occupation of Alcatraz Island, which began in 1969 in an act of defiance against a government that the protesters said had long trampled on Native American rights.

Her acting career began in the early 1970s at the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco. She would go on to play roles in films such as “The Trial of Billy Jack” (1974) and “Winterhawk” (1975).

Littlefeather said in an interview with the Academy that she had been planning to watch the awards on television when, the night before the ceremony, she received a call from Brando, who had been nominated for his performance as Vito Corleone in “The Godfather.”

The two had become friends through her neighbor Francis Ford Coppola, who had directed the film. Brando asked her to refuse the award on his behalf if he won and gave her a speech to read just in case.

With only about 15 minutes left in the program, Littlefeather arrived at the ceremony with little information about how the night would work, she said.

A producer for the Oscars noticed the pages in Littlefeather’s hand and told her that she would be arrested if her comments lasted more than 60 seconds.

Then Brando won.

In the speech, Littlefeather brought attention to the federal government’s standoff with protesting Native Americans then going on at Wounded Knee, South Dakota, the site of a massacre by U.S. troops a century earlier.

She later recalled that while she was giving the speech — she never finished it — she had “focused in on the mouths and the jaws that were dropping open in the audience, and there were quite a few.”

The audience, holding “very few people of color,” she recalled, looked like a “sea of Clorox.”

She said that some audience members did the so-called “tomahawk chop” at her and that when she went to Brando’s house later, people shot at the doorway where she was standing.

Last month, Littlefeather spoke at a program hosted by the Academy called “An Evening With Sacheen Littlefeather,” in which she recalled the Oscars ceremony and asserted that she had stood up for justice in all the arts.

“I didn’t represent myself,” she said. “I was representing all Indigenous voices out there, all Indigenous people, because we had never been heard in that way before.”

The audience erupted in applause.

“I had to pay the price of admission, and that was OK,” she continued. “Because those doors had to be open.”

After learning that the Academy would formally apologize to her, Littlefeather said it felt “like a big cleanse.”

“It feels like the sacred circle is completing itself,” she said, “before I go in this life.”

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