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Academy apologizes to Native American woman who declined Brando’s Oscar

Sacheen Littlefeather declined the best actor award on Marlon Brando’s behalf in 1973 and gave a speech about the mistreatment of Native people

Sacheen Littlefeather at the 1973 Academy Awards. ( Globe Photos/ZUMA Press)

The year was 1973. The venue: the Oscars. Marlon Brando had just been named best actor for his portrayal of Vito Corleone in “The Godfather.” But he did not walk onstage to accept the award.

Instead, a 26-year-old woman wearing moccasins and a Native American buckskin dress strode up the steps. After waving away the golden Oscar statuette, she introduced herself as Sacheen Littlefeather, an Apache, and said Brando was refusing the award.

“And the reasons for this being, are the treatment of American Indians today by the film industry,” she said to a mixture of applause and boos from the audience, adding that the poor treatment extended to television, as well as a tense standoff at Wounded Knee in South Dakota.

Native American actress Sacheen Littlefeather died Oct. 2. She made Oscars history by declining the best actor prize on behalf of Marlon Brando in 1973. (Video: Allie Caren/The Washington Post)

She distinctly recalled seeing mouths agape while looking out at the mostly White audience. John Wayne was ready to rush the stage but was held back by security staffers, she said in a recent interview, published in A.Frame. And at Brando’s home after the ceremony, Littlefeather claimed she was shot at.

The moment made history. It was the first time a Native American woman had stood on the Oscars stage, according to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, and her statement on behalf of Brando created shock waves. Littlefeather, an aspiring actress, said she was blacklisted from the industry and harassed.

Now, the academy is publicly apologizing to Littlefeather. In June, it sent her a “statement of reconciliation.”

“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,” the June 18 letter, signed by then-academy president David Rubin, read. “For too long the courage you showed has been unacknowledged. For this, we offer both our deepest apologies and our sincere admiration.”

The statement will be read on Sept. 17 during a “program of conversation, reflection, healing, and celebration” with Littlefeather, the academy announced in a news release on Monday.

In an interview with the Hollywood Reporter, Littlefeather 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 I was at the podium in 1973, I stood there alone.”

The apology comes as the academy has taken steps to be more inclusive of groups traditionally underrepresented in the film industry. In 2020, it introduced diversity and inclusion standards that films must meet to qualify for a best picture nomination, following criticism that the Oscars were dominated by White actors and filmmakers.

Despite the efforts, Hollywood continues to struggle with representation of women and ethnic minorities. Stereotyping in film persists, and White actors continue to be criticized for playing members of ethnic groups that are underrepresented on the screen. While people of color are increasingly included in film casts, certain groups — including Asians, Latinos and Native Americans — remain underrepresented, according to a 2022 UCLA “Hollywood Diversity Report.”

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In her interview in A.Frame, an online publication of the academy, Littlefeather explained that the 1973 Oscars moment came about after she became friends with Brando, whom she said she met through her neighbor, director Francis Ford Coppola. Shortly before the ceremony that March, Brando asked her to represent him and read a 739-word speech if he won. He specifically instructed her not to touch the statuette, she recalled.

Littlefeather showed up to the ceremony at Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in Los Angeles 0nly minutes before the best actor category would be introduced, she recalled. She said she was there as Brando’s representative. She was let in, but the show’s producer said she could not read the speech. He threatened to have her arrested if she spoke more than a minute, Littlefeather recalled.

Then, after Littlefeather sat down to wait out a commercial break, the category was announced. “Of course, my heart was rushing. And then, they called out his name,” Littlefeather recalled. “So, I took a couple of deep breaths, and I said a prayer.”

She introduced herself and explained why she was there. She said she’d make a brief statement in lieu of the speech Brando provided, and she started talking about the mistreatment of Native Americans in Hollywood. She paused as the crowd applauded and booed, and then continued, mentioning a standoff that had been ongoing between Native American activists and federal agents in Wounded Knee.

“It was interesting because some people were giving me the tomahawk chop,” Littlefeather recalled. “I thought, ‘This is very racist. Very racist indeed.’ ”

She walked off the stage and ignored them.

In the aftermath of the ceremony, she said she was barred from talk shows even as people “talked about me.”

“I could not and was not allowed to speak for myself,” she said. “It was as though I was silenced.”

In an interview on “The Dick Cavett Show” several months later, Brando said he was embarrassed by how Littlefeather was treated. “They should have at least had the courtesy to listen to her,” he said.

But he said he did not regret his decision to send her up there, adding that the stereotyping of ethnic minorities continued to be a problem in Hollywood. (Brando himself earned an Oscar nomination for playing a Mexican revolutionary in the 1952 western “Viva Zapata!” despite having no Mexican or Latino heritage.)

Littlefeather also recognized that it was an important step to take.

“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,’ ” she said. “This is all I was saying.”

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