Oscars 1972-2022: Academy Honors Native American Sacheen Littlefeather, 50 Years in the Making (Brando 1972 Oscar Scandal)

Oscars: Celebration Honoring Sacheen Littlefeather, 50 Years in the Making: “Tonight Is Her Vision of the Path Forward”

The activist, now 75, moved attendees to tears as well as laughter in an evening that featured her formal response to the Academy’s apology as well as song and dance from Indigenous artists.

The 1972 embarrassing case in Oscars history eventually led to a celebration of Indigenous culture, hosted at the symbolic heart of the motion picture industry, nearly half a century later.

On Saturday, the Academy welcomed Sacheen Littlefeather to its museum for an evening curated in her honor, an event that was both a culmination and continuation of its efforts to apologize to and reconcile with the actress and activist who was blacklisted from the industry for speaking up in protest of the treatment of Native Americans on and offscreen.

“Tonight is her vision of what the path forward might look like, that we can all share space to celebrate Native American and Indigenous cultures, to reflect, to collectively support one another in this circle of healing.”

The two-hour program, attended by a mixed crowd of people indigenous to and originating from lands beyond what is now known as the United States, that saw Native people and culture take center stage at the David Geffen Theater and offered an intimate glimpse into Littlefeather’s community (Apache/Yaqui/Ariz.)

Former museum director and president and current Academy CEO Bill Kramer introduced the historic footage of Littlefeather’s 1973 Oscars moment.

She appeared at Marlon Brando’s behest to decline the best actor award on his behalf, and absorbed jeers and professional backlash in his stead. “When we opened the museum, we grounded it in a focus on reflecting on our own past. This evening is an evolution of that work, and it really all started with this clip,” he said.

Stewart then welcomed Littlefeather herself to the stage, and the ensuing minute-plus standing ovation was a marked contrast to the boos she received the last time she attended an Academy event. Littlefeather, 75, uses a wheelchair now, but her warmth and unflappable demeanor was unchanged from the 26-year-old woman who made the first onstage political statement in Oscars history.

In her conversation with producer Bird Runningwater (Cheyenne/Mescalero Apache/N.M.), co-chair of the Academy’s Indigenous Alliance and the first person to reach out to Littlefeather on behalf of the Academy, the elder spoke haltingly with some shortness of breath but with no shortness of

“Well, I made it — after 50 years. You know how we Indian people are, we are very patient people,” she quipped to the crowd by way of greeting.

Littlefeather provided both the levity and gravity that grounded the evening, admitting that she was in dread when she realized she would have to refuse the Oscar from co-presenter Liv Ullmann, one of her favorite actresses, and embracing her role in achieving justice for Native Americans:

“I was representing all Indigenous voices out there, because we had never been heard in that way before. And if I had to pay the price of admission, then that was OK, because those doors had to be opened — like Yosemite Sam. Somebody had to do it.”

 

Oscar 1972: Brando rejected his (second) Best Actor Oscar for The Godfather

Per cultural tradition, Littlefeather also took the opportunity to bestow some personal gifts to a handful of individuals who participated in the evening’s program — Neconie, musical leaders Michael Bellanger (Ojibwe/Minn. and Kickapoo/Okla.), Steve Bohay (Kiowa/Okla.) and Joe Tohonnie (Apache/Ariz.) and Stewart, who was visibly moved as Littlefeather’s adoptive niece and caregiver, Calina Lawrence (Suquamish/Wash.), draped her in a deep purple shawl. “I’m crossing over soon to the spirit world,” said Littlefeather, who revealed last year that she has metastasized breast cancer. “And you know, I’m not afraid to die. Because we come from a we/us/our society. We don’t come from a me/I/myself society. And we learn to give away from a very young age. When we are honored, we give.”

As part of her response, Littlefeather asked all the Indigenous people present in the theater to stand. Nearly half of the room rose to their feet. “I am here accepting this apology, not only for me alone but as acknowledgment, knowing that it was not only for me, but for all of our nations that also need to hear and deserve this apology tonight,” she addressed the crowd. “Look at our people. Look at each other and be proud that we stand as survivors, all of us. Please, when I’m 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.”

The evening also featured a land acknowledgement from Virginia Carmelo (Tongva/So. Calif.) and performances by Bohay and the Sooner Nation Singers and Dancers, Bellanger and the All Nation Singers and Dancers and Tohonnie and the White Mountain Apache Crown Dancers, as well as an intertribal powwow featuring eight performers dancing in their individual styles to the same song: Teresa Littlebird (Northern Cheyenene/Calif.), grass dancers Wesley Bellanger (Ojibwe/Minn. and Kickapoo/Okla.) and Randy Pico Jr. (Navajo and Luiseño/Calif.), southern straight men’s traditional dancer James Gregory (Osage/Okla.), southern women’s cloth dancer Michele Gregory (Pit River/Northern Calif.), fancy shoal dancer Olivia Gone (Southern Cheyenne/Okla.), jingledress dancer Sophia Seaboy (Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate Sisseton/S.D.) and chicken dancer Akshkii Keediniihii (Diné Navajo/Ariz.). Lawrence, a singer-songwriter, also sang two numbers, the hip hop-inflected “Don’t Count Me Out” and “ʔəshəliʔ ti txʷəlšucid,” a modern R&B-style number in the Lushootseed language.

The program was free and open to the public. The 300 invited guests included friends of Littlefeather, filmmakers, creatives as well as members of community organizations including the Los Angeles County/City Native American Indian Commission, International Indigenous Youth Council, IllumiNative and Meztli Projects.

The invitees moved upstairs to the fifth-floor tea room for a reception that featured a buffet created by Chef Crystal Wahpepah (Kickapoo/Okla.) including smoked cedar bison roast, roasted agave hubbard squash salad and black oak acorn and Mayan chocolate devil cake.