50 years ago, Marlon Brando won the Oscar for his role as Don Vito Corleone in Francis Ford Coppola’s critically acclaimed film, The Godfather, now regarded as one of the greatest films ever made. 50 years ago, he rejected the Oscar. Instead of an acceptance speech, 26-year-old Sacheen Littlefeather, an Indigenous activist, went on stage on behalf of the actor to explain why.
Wounded Knee, South Dakota
For context, during this time, celebrity activists visited Wounded Knee, South Dakota, during a 19-month standoff between activists and the government. Some activists were actors, and were horrified after witnessing the result of mistreatment of Indigenous people in film and real life.
Littlefeather gave a letter to then-neighbor Francis Ford Coppola, asking him to ensure Brando read it if he was going to speak out. A year later, the actor called her. They built a rapport, and he pitched an idea: If he won the Oscar, would she kindly reject the award and read a 739-word speech about why her people deserve the recognition an Oscar win does?
She shared her reaction with The Academy. “I was just floored. I said [to Brando], ‘Well, I don’t have any evening wear.’ ‘Well, what can you wear?’ I said, ‘Well, when I dance at pow wows in the Bay Area, I have my buckskin dress, and my moccasins and hair ties.’ And Marlon said to me, ‘Well, that sounds okay.’ And that’s what I wore.”
Sacheen’s experience at the Oscars
Littlefeather had no idea what to expect. It was her first time at the Oscars, surrounded by movie stars during the ceremony’s first worldwide broadcast (another reason Brando chose it). However, she learned mere minutes before the winner was announced that Brando’s speech wasn’t going to cut it.
“You will get 60 seconds or less,” an official told her. If not, “I will have you put in jail. I will have you put in handcuffs. You will be embarrassed. Marlon will be embarrassed. So, you have 60 seconds or less if he should win.'”
50 years ago, Sacheen Littlefeather, the President of the National Native American Affirmative Image Committee, bravely went on stage and said, “‘I’m Sacheen Littlefeather. I’m Marlon Brando’s official representative here this evening. Unfortunately, he cannot receive this Academy Award because of the image of Native American Indian people in film and television today.'”
She was met with cheers, boos, racist reactions, and John Wayne being restrained by 6 men because he wanted to run in from the wings and physically assault her. Nevertheless, she continued. “And also because of the recent happenings in Wounded Knee, South Dakota. I had hoped that Marlon’s decision would meet with your graciousness and understanding.” Following that, Littlefeather was blacklisted, slandered by news outlets and gossip columnists, and felt silenced.
The Academy’s apology
Now, 50 years later, the Academy extended an official apology to Littlefeather due to the treatment she experienced that night. Not only that, but they will be airing a special program on September 17, “An Evening with Sacheen Littlefeather,” for an important dialogue about the mistreatment of Indigenous people.
Jacqueline Stewart, director and president of the Academy Museum, says, “We are delighted and humbled that Sacheen has so generously chosen to engage with the museum and Academy to reflect upon her trying experience at the 1973 Academy Awards.”
The event will also include the letter of apology The Academy sent Littlefeather, which answers her initial plea from half a century ago: Let us write our own stories. Let us be who we are.
“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.”
As Littlefeather recalls, no one knows what she had to go through after that night. But now, she’ll be able to tell that story. Littlefeather was the first activist to speak at an awards ceremony being broadcast around the world. She brought light to what was happening to her people, and was treated horribly for it. She changed film and film history forever. Now, she’s been given a platform to tell her story and for it to be told with her voice.
Want to learn more about the Indigenous experience from a cinematic lens? Taika Waititi is just one of the filmmakers who has you covered.
Photo via Globe Press