Oscar Scandals: Brando’s Rejection of his Godfather Oscar; Sacheen Littlefeather Accepting for him; Now Apology after Years of Harassment and Humiliation

Academy Apologizes to Sacheen Littlefeather for Mistreatment At 1973 Oscars

Nearly 50 years after suffering harassment and discrimination for protesting Native American mistreatment, the activist will be the guest of honor at an evening of Indigenous celebration hosted by the Academy Museum on September 17.

The first time Sacheen Littlefeather attended the Oscars, in 1973, she was booed onstage, heckled with mockery and “tomahawk chops” offstage and threatened with arrest and physical assault.

Half a century later, she will return to the Academy as an invited guest of honor for an evening of reflection at the Museum, featuring something she never dared to imagine: a formal apology from the Academy.

“I was stunned. I never thought I’d live to see the day I would be hearing this,” Littlefeather (Apache/Yaqui/Ariz.), now 75, says about receiving the Academy’s statement, which was first privately presented to her in June.

“When I was at the podium in 1973, I stood there alone.”

“Brando very regretfully cannot accept this very generous award,” Littlefeather said in her improvised non-acceptance speech, knowing she would not have time to read from the actor’s eight typed pages of prepared remarks. “And the reasons for this being are the treatment of American Indians today by the film industry– excuse me – and on television in movie reruns, and also with recent happenings at Wounded Knee.”

A month before the ceremony, the activist organization American Indian Movement had occupied the South Dakota town of Wounded Knee to protest the sustained mistreatment of Native Americans, a standoff that at the time of Littlefeather’s televised appearance at the Oscars was under a U.S. Department of Justice-imposed media blackout.

Littlefeather’s 60-second plea for justice resulted in a personal backlash. She says that in the wings, John Wayne had to be restrained from storming the stage to physically attack her.

In the aftermath, her identity and integrity were impugned. In 2012, Dennis Miller mocked Elizabeth Warren by calling her “as much Indian as that stripper chick Brando sent to pick up his Oscar.”

Littlefeather had acted in few films before her infamous moment. She says the federal government threatened to shut down any talk shows or productions that put her on the air.

The statement of apology will be read in full at the September 17 Academy Museum event honoring Littlefeather, who will participate in conversation with producer Bird Runningwater (Cheyenne/Mescalero Apache/N.M.), co-chair of the Academy’s Indigenous Alliance.

It was Runningwater who first reached out to Littlefeather on behalf of the Academy, as part of the Museum’s ongoing efforts to revisit the organization’s past and determine its future through a more expansive, inclusive lens. “Bird gave me a call – on the phone, of course. He tried to send smoke signals but they wouldn’t fit underneath the door,” jokes Littlefeather.

Runningwater and Academy Inclusion Advisory Committee member Heather Rae cultivated a relationship with the lifelong activist, paving the way for her to record an episode for the Academy Museum podcast, in June, as well as a visual history, to be released next month.

An Evening with Sacheen Littlefeather, which will be free to the public via online reservations, will feature land recognition from Virginia Carmelo (Tongva/S. Calif.) and performances by vocalist and singer Calina Lawrence (Suquamish/Wash.), the San Manuel Bird Singers (San Manuel/Calif.), Michael Bellanger (Ojibiway/Minn. and Kickapoo/Okla.) and the All Nation Singers and Dancers and Steve Bohay (Kiowa/Okla.) and the Sooner Nation Singers and Dancers, as well as remarks from Rubin, Academy CEO Bill Kramer and Assemblymember James Ramos (Serrano/Cahuilla/So. Calif.).

Academy Museum director Jacqueline Stewart and Earl Neconie (Kiowa/Oklahoma) will emcee the evening.

When Stewart visited her home in June to record the visual history, she presented Littlefeather with two gifts. “I was thinking, it can’t be a pair of slippers. That’s too casual for the Academy,” Littlefeather recalls. Indeed: She instead received a photograph of her appearance on the Museum’s gallery walls (“Right next to Sidney Poitier when he won best actor for Lilies of the Field, so I’m in good company here”) and the framed letter from Rubin.

As Stewart read the letter aloud, Littlefeather sat in attentive silence as she listened to words that she never thought she’d hear.

“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 said afterward, clearly still processing the apology but expressing herself with the same poise and candor she has demonstrated since the world first heard her voice.

It wasn’t until three minutes later, after she reflected on and paid tribute to the Native American filmmakers and artists making progress in Hollywood – like Runningwater, Rae, actor Wes Studi and Reservation Dogs creator Sterlin Harjo – that Sacheen Littlefeather became emotional and began to cry, clutching the framed letter to her chest.

“There’s an apology that’s due. As my friends in the Native community said, it’s long overdue,” says Littlefeather, who is living with metastasized breast cancer. “I could have been dead by now. All of my friends – [activists] Dennis Banks, Russell Means, John Trudell, [comedian] Charlie Hill – are gone.”

Littlefeather’s husband, Charles Koshiway (Otoe/Sac&Fox), has also passed, of blood cancer last November. They were together 32 years. “His spirit is still here with me, and I know that what he wanted for me was always justice and reconciliation,” says Littlefeather, although when asked what she thinks of Koch and the other Oscar night participants who stood by as she was harassed, she laughs heartily: “When they got to the other side, I’m sure that my ancestors spoke to them on my behalf. And I’m sure Mr. Charles went over there and had a talk with them immediately. I’m sure his first target was John Wayne.”

In her concluding words back in 1973, Littlefeather said, “I beg at this time that… in the future, our hearts and our understandings will meet with love and generosity.”

It took 49 years, but those words have finally become prescient.

Read the Academy’s full statement of reconciliation to Sacheen Littlefeather below.

June 18, 2022

Dear Sacheen Littlefeather,

I write to you today a letter that has been a long time coming on behalf of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, with humble acknowledgment of your experience at the 45th Academy Awards.

As you stood on the Oscars stage in 1973 to not accept the Oscar on behalf of Marlon Brando, in recognition of the misrepresentation and mistreatment of Native American people by the film industry, you made a powerful statement that continues to remind us of the necessity of respect and the importance of human dignity.

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.  For too long the courage you showed has been unacknowledged.  For this, we offer both our deepest apologies and our sincere admiration.

We cannot realize the Academy’s mission to “inspire imagination and connect the world through cinema” without a commitment to facilitating the broadest representation and inclusion reflective of our diverse global population.

Today, nearly 50 years later, and with the guidance of the Academy’s Indigenous Alliance, we are firm in our commitment to ensuring indigenous voices—the original storytellers—are visible, respected contributors to the global film community. We are dedicated to fostering a more inclusive, respectful industry that leverages a balance of art and activism to be a driving force for progress.

With warmest regards, David Rubin
President, Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences