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Sacheen Littlefeather declining the Best Actor Academy Award on Marlon Brando's behalf in 1973. (


43 years later, Native American activist Sacheen Littlefeather reflects on rejecting Marlon Brando’s Oscar

By WITW Staff on February 27, 2016

At the 45th Annual Academy Awards in 1973, Marlon Brando was awarded the Best Actor Oscar for his iconic role as Vito Corleone in The Godfather. However, Brando didn’t show up to accept the statue. Instead, he sent a Native American activist named Sacheen Littlefeather in his place to decline the award. Littlefeather stood behind the podium and, to a mixed reaction of boos and applause from the audience, explained why the movie star, at the height of his career, was rejecting the Academy’s most prestigious individual honor. “He has asked me to tell you … that he very regretfully cannot accept this very generous award,” Littlefeather, wearing traditional Apache dress, said. “And the reasons for this being are the treatment of American Indians today by the film industry.” The controversy over a lack of diversity among this year’s nominees thrust Littlefeather’s remarkable moment back into the spotlight earlier this month. Watch the video of the unprecedented moment below.

Forty-three years after that fateful moment, Littlefeather, in multiple interviews, looks back on being the first person of color to use the Oscars award show “as a political platform.” Littlefeather walked onto the Academy Awards stage carrying a lengthy speech in her hand, which she told the live audience was too long to read during the time allotted for an acceptance speech. She then explained Brando’s position. “I had only 60 seconds or less and I kept my promise,” she recalled in the interview with Broadly. “Remember, I was making a profound statement: I did not use my fist, I did not use profanity, I used grace and elegance and quiet strength as my tools.”

Littlefeather, who was 27 at the time, recalls her gender being a problem for some people. In an interview with The Los Angeles Times earlier this month, she talked about another of the world’s biggest movie stars at the Oscars that night whom she said was none too pleased with her speech. “Oh, I got threats,” Littlefeather remembered. “They said, ‘Why did they send a woman to do a man’s job?’ [The people backstage] said they’d give me 60 seconds, or they’d arrest me. John Wayne was in the wings, ready to have me taken off stage. He had to be restrained by six security guards. Afterward people questioned my authenticity, they said I wasn’t even Indian.”

More tense moments followed her brief speech. She said after leaving the stage, she was escorted away by “two security people who kept everyone at a distance from me so that I was protected. I remember some people making some very stereotypical sounds and tomahawk chops towards me afterwards. And I just blessed them and went on,” she told Broadly.

Littlefeather in 2010. (Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images)
Littlefeather in 2010. (Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images)

Her moment of activism also brought renewed attention to the standoff between Native Americans and police at Wounded Knee in South Dakota. “And when Marlon Brando utilized the Academy Award platform … it broke the media boycott,” Littlefeather said. “And all the world’s media came to Wounded Knee. So the FBI was madder than hell at me.” And it wasn’t only the FBI who had issues with her after that. Littlefeather was also an aspiring actress, a member of the two most prominent acting unions. But the speech turned out to sink her career entirely. “I was told this by numerous people within the industry, that they could not hire me or their productions would be shut down,” she said about the aftermath of making a stand.

In the Los Angeles Times interview, Littlefeather talked about the bond she’s developed with Jada Pinkett-Smith, who is boycotting the Oscars this year over a lack of diversity among the nominees, after Littlefeather wrote to her. She shared Pinkett-Smith’s response.

“I am deeply honored that you took the time to write me. I am very aware of who you are and I have watched your speech at the Oscars many times,” Pinkett-Smith wrote. “Your speech and the position you and Mr. Brando took was a much needed validation for my position. Thank you for being one of the brave and courageous to help pave the way for those of us who need a reminder of the importance to simply be true. I will cherish your words and sentiments in hopes that our paths may cross in this lifetime. Until then may the Great Spirit guide us all and may Mother Earth continue to keep us in her compassionate embrace.”

And in both interviews, Littlefeather discussed how Hollywood has and hasn’t changed since that moment in 1973, and how President Obama really understands why many people of color are dismayed at the continued lack of diversity in the industry.

Read the full story at Broadly and The Los Angeles Times.