“Regarding the Academy’s apology to me, we Indians are very patient people. It’s only been fifty years! We need to keep our sense of humor about this at all times. It’s our method of survival.”
Last week, we learned, on the eve of the 50th anniversary of arguably the most infamous public refusal of an Academy Award ever, one of its central figures passed away at the age of 75. Until very recently, Sacheen Littlefeather has been immortalized by cinephiles and awards watchers as little more than an amusing Oscar footnote. But as it goes with most of these half-remembered events, people are so much more than the most infamous thing they’ve ever done.
Not that the Apache actress and former President of the National Native American Affirmative Image Committee’s presentation shouldn’t be remembered as significant. It absolutely was. Her speech highlighted the still-pervasive problem of Native American discrimination and erasure in Hollywood during the first Academy Award ceremony broadcast live via satellite. But also, many of us seem to have forgotten that her appearance was a major contributor to ending the mainstream media blackout of an important protest movement happening in Wounded Knee, South Dakota at the time.
If you know this location on the Pine Ridge Reservation, it’s most likely because of the infamous massacre of nearly three hundred Lakota men, women, and children in 1890. But also, on February 27th, 1973, the American Indian Movement, with the support of the Lakota of Pine Ridge, occupied Wounded Knee and asserted their sovereignty. Originally, the American Indian Movement was formed five years earlier as an advocacy group to raise awareness of and bring systemic change to the pervasive problem of poverty, unemployment, and police violence against Native Americans. But this particular occupation was spurred on after Pine Ridge’s failure to impeach Tribal Chairman Dick Wilson for corruption.
The occupation lasted for seventy-one days. And most white people were not aware it was happening at all until Littlefeather stood up on that stage and explained Marlon Brando’s rationale for rejecting his second Academy Award for Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role. The speech severely damaged her acting career. AMPAS later issued a rule banning proxy acceptance speeches for award winners in the future. Some attendees booed her speech and mockingly displayed a “tomahawk chop” gesture at her as she left the stage. Her speech was restricted to no more than one minute by the producers of the ceremony (who threatened to arrest her if she went even one second over), who all publicly rebuked her afterward. And while the accuracy of this account is disputed, Littlefeather insisted that John Wayne did indeed have to be restrained backstage from physically assaulting her, and I believe her. Not only because she was a credible individual, but also because John Wayne sucked. Seriously, he was a real scumbag.
Luckily, her life was not destroyed by her appearance at the Oscars. She became a hospice care worker and a respected activist for the Native American community for the rest of her life. She co-founded the American Indian Registry for Performing Arts, the American Indian AIDS Institute of San Francisco, and was one of the inaugural teachers at St. Mary’s Traditional Indian Medicine. Though she never won an Oscar of her own, she later won an Emmy, an Honorary Eagle Spirit Award, a Traditional Indian Medicine Achievement Award, and just three years ago, fittingly, a Brando Award.
I’m heartened by how she lived long enough to see her activism vindicated, at least on a public relations level. It’s nice that she died peacefully, surrounded by loved ones. The Academy, sensing a lot of future retrospectives of this event, got ahead of it by issuing a belated apology for the hostility with which her speech in his stead was received, which she graciously accepted. Better late than never, I guess. But as I reflect on her life, I realize that we should all take care to remember how native people are still very much here. Everywhere we go, wherever we live in this part of the world, is somewhere that an indigenous tribe called home. For example…
I wrote and submitted this article from the traditional land of the Piscataway and Anacostan Nacotchtank peoples.
When she’s not writing about film and popular culture, Anna Young is doing important public service work on the traditional land of the Wappinger, Munsee Lenape, and Schaghticoke peoples.
Niki Cruz contributes her insights from the traditional land of the Munsee Lenape people.
Abe Friedtanzer conducts his interviews from the traditional land of the Gabrieleno Tongva people.
Our Canadian correspondent, Benjamin Wiebe, hails from the traditional land of the Ktunaxa ɁamakɁis, Ĩyãħé Nakón Mąkóce, Očhéthi Šakówiŋ, Niitsítpiis-Stahkoii ᖹᐟᒧᐧᐨᑯᐧ ᓴᐦᖾᐟ, Tsuut’ina, and Michif Piyii peoples.
Amanda Spears contributes her thoughts on the awards beat from the traditional land of the Myaamia, Kaskaskia, and Hopewell Culture peoples.
Steven Prusakowski busily wears his TV Editor, Chief Marketing Officer, and Creative Strategist hats on the traditional land of the Munsee Lenape people.
And our boss, Joey Magidson, owns and operates this website from the traditional land of the Canarsie and Munsee Lenape peoples.
All of us mourn Sacheen Littlefeather’s passing. We celebrate her courage and Mr. Brando’s integrity in speaking out for what was right during that ceremony, and encourage you to watch her speech in full below:
**k Christopher Columbus.