Standing ovation in a packed auditorium, Sacheen Littlefeather had a moment of vindication in mid-September. This one was slow in coming. Nearly half a century has passed since the night in March 1973 when she took the stage at the Oscars to decline the award for Best Actor on behalf of Marlon Brando for The Godfather with a critique of the stereotypes with which the indigenous people were portrayed in the cinema and the siege that the tribes lived through. The academy apologized to the actress in June for having received “unfair” treatment at the time. In September the organization paid tribute to her at the Academy Museum to recognize the value of her gesture. This Sunday it was the organization itself that reported Littlefeather’s death at the age of 75.
On September 17, at a soirée organized by the Academy, Littlefeather was wheeled out to the David Geffen Theater. With a great sense of humor, but a weak voice, he told the audience that he had begun to dispose of his possessions during his lifetime. “Soon I will cross over to the spirit world. And you know, I am not afraid of death”, he stated before the audience. The last weeks of his life were spent giving away his possessions, one of the traditions of the native peoples. “Last week I donated my car … before I leave I don’t want to have anything,” he announced.
When communicating his death this Sunday, the academy chose some of his words from that night: “When I am no longer here, always remember that when you raise your voice for your truth, you will be keeping my voice and that of our peoples alive.” On that evening, Littlefeather was accompanied by a group of Apache dancers from Arizona and Joe Tohonnie, who has received two Grammy nominations for his sacred songs.
Littlefeather was born Marie Louise Cruz in Salinas, Northern California. Of Apache origins, she adopted her name when she was part of the indigenous movement that occupied Alcatraz Island for a year and a half at the end of the 1960s to demand that the United States Government return the lands to the indigenous tribes.
That 60-second political speech derailed her acting career at age 26. The studio doors were closed to her and the late shows of the time did not invite her to echo her activism against the installation of a military base in Wounded Knee, land owned by the Lakota tribe. “She was not speaking for myself, she was representing all the indigenous voices out there. She had never heard us like this before. If I had to pay a price, that’s fine, because we had to open those doors, ”she told Bird Runningwater, a member of the Film Academy.
In front of the audience, Littlefeather said that it took Brando many minutes to write the six or seven pages of the speech. It was at the actor’s suggestion that he wore the deerskin garment and loafers. She arrived at the theater where the statuettes were delivered accompanied by Brando’s personal secretary, just 20 minutes before the end of the gala. The organizers threatened her that if she read the entire contents of the letter she would be arrested. She alone would have 60 seconds, a requirement she adhered to.
“The film community has been as responsible as others for demeaning the image of Indians and mocking their character, depicting them as savage, hostile and evil. It’s hard for children to grow up in this world. When Indian children watch television and movies, and see how their race is treated, their minds must be hurt beyond our comprehension,” said part of the text written by Brando, which was published days later in full by New York Times.
That short speech, which was applauded and booed by the Dorothy Chandler pavilion audience, became one of the most famous moments of the Oscar. It also gave rise to a series of urban legends. Littlefeather claimed that the words created “commotion” backstage and that John Wayne, who was on one side, was furious at the message and had to be restrained by guards from being pounced on. This version has been questioned by Hollywood historians. Although minutes later it was recorded in front of the cameras how he had taken a certain part of the establishment the message. “I don’t know if I should present this award in memory of all the cowboys who have been killed in John Wayne movies,” Clint Eastwood joked before handing out the Best Picture award.
This summer, David Rubin, the Academy’s president, sent Littlefeather a fact-correcting letter. “I hope you receive these words in a spirit of reconciliation and with our recognition of your essential role in our journey to become a more inclusive organization,” the message concluded. In September, in what would be his last public appearance, Littlefeather told the Academy leadership: “I accept the apology not only for myself, but I know it is for all of our nations. They also deserve them and need to listen to them”, he affirmed, and asked all the indigenous people who were present there that night to stand up.
All the culture that goes with you awaits you here.
The literary news analyzed by our best critics in our weekly newsletter