Sacheen Littlefeather, Native American civil rights activist, passes away at 75

Sacheen Littlefeather had famously declined Marlon Brando’s Academy Award in 1973

October 03, 2022 10:03 am | Updated 12:04 pm IST

 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.

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. | Photo Credit: AFP

Sacheen Littlefeather, Native American civil rights activist who in 1973 declined Marlon Brando’s Best Actor Academy Award, died on October 2, 2022 at the age of 75.

Littlefeather died on Sunday at her resident in Novato, Northern California, according to a statement sent out by her caretaker.

In 2018, it was reported that Littlefeather had developed stage 4 breast cancer.

Born Marie Louise Cruz in Salinas, California, to a Native American father (Apache and Yaqui) and European American mother in 1946, Littlefeather became interested in Native American issues in college and participated in the 1970 occupation of Alcatraz Island, adopting her name during that time.

After college, she joined the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) and reportedly met Brando, who took an interest in Native American issues, through his “The Godfather” director Francis Ford Coppola who, like Littlefeather, lived in San Francisco.

In 1973, Littlefeather stood on the Academy Awards stage on behalf of Brando to speak about the depiction of Native Americans in Hollywood films. Littlefeather, wearing buckskin dress and moccasins, took the stage, becoming the first Native American woman ever to do so at the Academy Awards. In a 60-second speech, she explained that Brando could not accept the award due to “the treatment of American Indians today by the film industry." Littlefeather also used her time on stage to bring attention to the 1973 Wounded Knee South Dakota protest.

Earlier this year, the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences apologised to her for the abuse she faced which involved being “professionally boycotted, personally harassed and attacked, and discriminated against for the last fifty years.”

Watch Sacheen Littlefeather’s speech at the 1973 Oscars here:

Some in the audience booed her. John Wayne, who was backstage at the time, was reportedly furious and had to be restrained by bodyguards from storming the stage.

On September 17, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences hosted An Evening with Sacheen Littlefeather, described as, “ a special celebration of live Native American performances featuring a long-awaited statement of apology from the Academy.”

In a podcast earlier this year with Jacqueline Stewart, a film scholar and director of the Academy Museum, Littlefeather reflected on what compelled her to speak out in 1973.

“I felt that there should be Native people, Black people, Asian people, Chicano people — I felt there should be an inclusion of everyone," said Littlefeather. "A rainbow of people that should be involved in creating their own image.”

Although she had a few small roles in films such as “The Trial of Billy Jack” (1974) and “Shoot the Sun Down” (1978), Littlefeather said she was blacklisted from Hollywood in the aftermath of her Oscars address.

She later returned to San Francisco to continue her activism and work in theatre and health care.

A documentary about her life and activism, titled “Sacheen Breaking the Silence”, was released in 2021. 

(With inputs from agencies)

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