Sacheen Littlefeather, Indigenous actress who refused Oscar, dies

Sacheen Littlefeather made Oscar history after a speech in 1973 on the mistreatment of Native Americans in the movie industry.

Sacheen Littlefeather on stage at AMPAS Presents An Evening with Sacheen Littlefeather at Academy Museum of Motion Pictures on September 17, 2022 in Los Angeles, California. Frazer Harrison/Getty Images/AFP (Photo by Frazer Harrison / GETTY IMAGES NORTH AMERICA / Getty Images via AFP)
Sacheen Littlefeather on stage at the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures on September 17, 2022 in Los Angeles, California, the United States [File: Frazer Harrison/Getty Images]

Sacheen Littlefeather, an Indigenous US civil rights activist who campaigned against the mistreatment of Native Americans in the movie industry, has died at 75.

The news was announced on Sunday by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which in August apologised to Littlefeather for the abuse she endured when she took a stand in the 1970s against anti-Indigenous racism in the United States film industry.

Littlefeather, who is of Apache and Yaqui heritage, had made history by being the first Native American to step foot on the Oscars award ceremony stage – the first time the event was broadcast live around the world – and use the opportunity to make a political statement.

Her death was announced on Twitter where she was quoted as saying: “When I am gone, always be reminded that whenever you stand for your truth, you will be keeping my voice and the voices of our nations and our people alive.”

In 1973, Littlefeather did not accept the Best Actor award for Marlon Brando for his performance in the film The Godfather, but instead came on stage when his award was announced and made a passionate 60-second speech on the insulting portrayal of Native Americans in the movie industry.

She also touched on protests that were taking place during the same year in Wounded Knee in South Dakota amid a period of mounting Indigenous activism in the US. The American Indian Movement occupied the site in protest of the country’s legacy of anti-Indigenous violence and discrimination.

Sacheen Littlefeather at the 1973 Academy Awards ceremony.
Sacheen Littlefeather appears at the Academy Awards ceremony to announce that Marlon Brando was declining his Oscar award on March 27, 1973. The move was meant to protest Hollywood’s treatment of Native Americans [File: AP Photo]

“This moment resulted in her being professionally boycotted, personally attacked and harassed, and discriminated against for the last 50 years,” read an Academy statement from August 2022. The institution issued a public apology to Littlefeather for the bad treatment and held a ceremony at its new Los Angeles museum honouring her two weeks ago.

“I went up there, like a proud Indian woman with dignity, with courage, with grace, and with humility,” Littlefeather said at the museum event. “I knew that I had to speak the truth. Some people may accept it. And some people may not.”

She said Western film star John Wayne had to be restrained from physically assaulting her as she left the stage after her famous speech.

Littlefeather, a member of the Screen Actors Guild, subsequently found it difficult to get work in Hollywood, with casting directors warned not to employ her. Asked by reporters ahead of the ceremony how she felt about having to wait so long to hear the word “sorry”, Littlefeather was philosophical.

“It’s never too late for an apology,” she said. “It’s never too late for forgiveness.”

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies