Academy Will Apologize to Brando’s Oscar Stand-in, Sacheen Littlefeather

Marlon Brando sent Sacheen Littlefeather to reject his 1973 Oscar for “The Godfather,” and to bear the brunt of his blowback

Forty-nine years after she gave the Oscars one of the most electrifying moments in TV history, Sacheen Littlefeather has received a formal apology from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which finally acknowledged the harassment and backlash that followed her brief podium appearance on behalf of Marlon Brando at the 1973 awards ceremony.

The actor and Native rights activist, who will be the Academy Museum’s guest of honor at a September 17 event celebrating Indigenous people, tells The Hollywood Reporter that she was “stunned” when she privately received the Academy’s apology in June. “I never thought I’d live to see the day I would be hearing this. When I was at the podium in 1973, I stood there alone.”

Alone, wearing Apache buckskin, and holding an eight-page speech that Brando gave her to read in his absence. An occasional activist who often created public dramas despite his preferred persona as a recluse, Brando had decided to boycott the Best Actor award he was likely to win for The Godfather, citing Hollywood stereotypes of Native Americans—and effectively shoved the 26-year-old into primetime’s spotlight during Hollywood’s festival of self-love. The actor instructed her not to touch the statue, and producer Howard Koch told her to keep her speech under 60 seconds. She barely got that far.

“Hello,” she began, identifying herself then saying was there to represent Brando, who “very regretfully cannot accept this very generous award.” She alluded to activists’ siege of Wounded Knee before boos, Western-film “injun” ululations, and other catcalls from the audience battled for air time. These were the broadcast’s only hints of the shitstorm awaiting Brando’s designated protester.

Koch later recalled that John Wayne himself, who was waiting in the wings, had to be restrained by six security guards so that he didn’t rush the stage and force her off. As he presented the night’s award for Best Picture, Clint Eastwood cracked that he was doing so “on behalf of all the cowboys shot in John Ford westerns over the years.”

The ironies of this were not lost on Littlefeather, now 75, herself. “I was a spokesperson, so to speak, for the stereotype of  Native Americans in film and in television,” she later told a reporter for Native Times.

Plenty of filmmakers praised Littlefeather’s Oscar appearance. “Remember that moment when Marlon Brando sent the Indian woman to accept the Oscar, and everything went haywire?” Andre Gregory asks Wallace Shawn in 1981’s My Dinner With Andre. “Things just very rarely go haywire now. If you’re just operating by habit, then you’re not really living.”

But it also made her the butt of comedians’ jokes for decades and, while she continued activism and worked for years in health and hospice services, Littlefeather’s acting career ended the night of her Oscar appearance.

Bird Runningwater, co-chair of the Academy’s Indigenous Alliance, began the Academy’s fence-mending effort by reaching out to Littlefeather some months ago. This led to her participation in the Academy Museum’s podcast and a visual history by the Academy Oral History Projects, to be released in September. At the museum’s Sept. 17 event, the full text of the Academy’s apology will be read aloud.

Littlefeather, who is living with metastatic breast cancer, took it gracefully when she first heard the apology, telling THR, “You know, I never stood up onstage in 1973 for any kind of accolades. I only stood there because my ancestors were with me, and I spoke the truth.”

She added, “Yes, there’s an apology that’s due. As my friends in the Native community said, it’s long overdue. I could have been dead by now. All of my friends—[activists] Dennis Banks, Russell Means, John Trudell, [comedian] Charlie Hill—are gone.”

Recently, Hollywood’s Native American artists—like Runningwater, Rae, actor Wes Studi and Reservation Dogs creator Sterlin Harjo—have expressed their love and support for Littlefeather, who also lost her husband of 32 years last fall.

She said she’s confident that he and her other lost relatives are her strong advocates in the afterlife.

“And I’m sure [my husband] went over there and had a talk with them immediately,” she said. “I’m sure his first target was John Wayne.”

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