The Infamous Story of Sacheen Littlefeather
It is safe to say that Marie Louise Cruz is not a name that the general public is familiar with, but then again, even her stage name, Sacheen Littlefeather is rarely brought up in film conversations. However, despite her little fame, she was involved in possibly one of the biggest award show scandals in the history of cinema, and it all took place at the 1973 Academy Awards...
Despite having her own career as an actor, model, and activist, Sacheen is most well known for an association with Hollywood legend, Marlon Brando. Although he is revered as one of the greatest actors of all time, he was also a staunch supporter of Native American rights and worked as an activist with the American Indian Association from the 1960's to the 70's, this would be the organization that caused Brando and Littlefeather to cross paths.
While you surely haven't heard of any movie in Sacheen's discography, you'll certainly be familiar with Marlon Brando's performance as Vito Corleone in Francis Ford Coppola's masterpiece, The Godfather. His work in the film was met with almost unanimous acclaim from everyone in the film industry. To the surprise of absolutely no one, Brando was nominated for Best Actor at the 45th Academy Awards, an accolade which he ended up winning, not a very shocking outcome. What was shocking however is that Brando did not come on stage to accept his trophy. Instead, the audience witnessed a 26 year old Native American girl with long black hair, dressed in an Apache buckskin dress. People of course assumed that Brando was having somebody else accept the award on his behalf and didn't think it was an overtly strange situation, until Sacheen lifted her hand to decline the trophy from presenter, Roger Moore, before walking up to the microphone to deliver her speech.
With a stack of pages in her hands, Littlefeather spoke into the microphone:
"Hello. My name is Sacheen Littlefeather. I'm Apache and I am president of the National Native American Affirmative Image Committee. I'm representing Marlon Brando this evening, and he has asked me to tell you in a very long speech which I cannot share with you presently, because of time, but I will be glad to share with the press afterwards, that he very regretfully cannot accept this very generous award. And the reasons for this being are the treatment of American Indians today by the film industry – excuse me... and on television in movie re-runs, and also with recent happenings at Wounded Knee. I beg at this time that I have not intruded upon this evening, and that we will in the future, our hearts and our understandings will meet with love and generosity. Thank you on behalf of Marlon Brando."
Unsurprisingly, Littlefeather recieved as many boos and she did cheers that night, she was even mocked by the other presenters and nominees to come after her. When Clint Eastwood presented the Oscar for Best Picture he announced, that he was presenting it "on behalf of all the cowboys shot in John Ford westerns over the years." The ceremony's co-host, Michael Caine later criticized Brando for "letting some poor little Indian girl take the boos" instead of "[standing] up and [doing] it himself." Littlefeather's speech made such an impact that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences banned the use of any proxy acceptance of Academy Awards at future ceremonies. In addition to that, Sacheen was promptly blacklisted from Hollywood. The speech not only put her career in danger, but her life as well, following the ceremony she recieved various threats and was even shot at while visiting Brando's residence.
Regardless of if you consider her speech to be in poor taste or not, there is no doubting how much bravery it took for Sacheen Littlefeather to stand up in front of Hollywood and millions of television viewers and give a speech that she knew that people did not want to hear. Her appearance brought attention to the Wounded Knee occupation that took place in May of 1973, leading to the deaths and injuries of several Native American activists. Since her speech, Littlefeather has become a symbol of rebellion and Native American rights, She has recieved gratitude from prominant figures such as Coretta Scott King, and was even listed as an inspiration for Jada Pinkett Smith's boycott of the 2014 Academy Awards due to the ceremony's lack of diversity.
Years after her speech, in 1979 Sacheen co-founded the National American Indian Performing Arts Registry which later allowed several Native actors to join the production of Kevin Costner's Dances With Wolves, which has since been admitted to the Library of Congress. She also worked with Mother Theresa in 1988 to help AIDS patients in hospice care. In an interview from mid 2021, Littlefeather announced that she is currently suffering from terminal cancer.
Personally, I can't help but admire Sacheen for her overwhelming courage to raise awareness about the mistreatment of Native Americans in Hollywood and I hope one day she is given the admiration, and gratitude she deserves.