• Industry

Making Peace: Sacheen Littlefeather, the Industry, the Oscar, the Present


A mere three weeks after her presence at the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures to publicly receive the apology over her treatment at the 1973 Oscars, Sacheen Littlefeather, actress and activist, has died. She was 75 years old and had been battling breast cancer. She was a fierce, kind, and bright woman, fighting for her people and her principles. “I’m not afraid of dying,” she said that night. “I’m longing to be together with my husband, and all the ones that came before me.”

In her honor, we bring back that historical night of September 17, 2022.


On a festive night with dance, music and a full house at the Academy Museum’s David Geffen Theater last Saturday, a sad and painful chapter of American cinema ended up in joy and understanding.

“As most of you know, Sacheen Littlefeather became a household name in 1973, almost 50 years ago,” said Academy Museum President Jaqueline Stewart. “During that year’s Academy Awards ceremony, Sacheen, a member of the (Screen) Actors Guild, became the first Native American woman to stand on stage at the Oscars.”

This historic moment went way beyond – Sacheen, an actor, an activist, and a close friend of Marlon Brando, agreed to go in his stead to the gala, to not only refuse his Oscar for Best Actor but also to share a long six-page statement about the way Native Americans were treated on screen and in real life.

Sacheen, dressed in full powwow dress and with extraordinary self-control, refused the statuette on Brando’s behalf and instead delivered the key points of his revolt.

The house went down between some applause and furious boos. Off stage and behind her and the presenters – Liv Ullman and Roger MooreJohn Wayne had to be restrained by six security men, furious and ready to charge Sacheen.

For almost 50 years, this exhibition of intolerance and racism had been dancing back and forth in the long history of Hollywood. Now, however, Sacheen’s presence and energy and Marlon Brando’s revolt against discrimination were clearly brought up and transformed into a learning lesson.

“In the most positive sense, the Academy and our industry find itself at an inflection point,” said Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences president, David Rubin, in the recent ceremony. “And thanks to this wonderful museum and events like this, we are actively examining our past and focusing on how best we can facilitate healing going forward.”

Dances from several nations warmed the room in the Saturday event but the deep plunge into that night at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion on March 27, 1973, was the emotional and brilliant transformation offered by Sacheen herself.


Sacheen’s full speech, screened at the David Geffen Theater, silenced the room.

In the excerpt from that 1973 show, then 26-year-old Sacheen, calm and composed, after elegantly refusing the Oscar, delivered her short speech: “Hello, my name is Sacheen Littlefeather. I’m Apache and I’m 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 afterward, 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 reruns, 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.”

Entering the stage once again in full regalia in Saturday’s program, Sacheen was welcomed with long applause. With brief questions by Academy member, producer, and co-chair of the Academy’s Indigenous Alliance, Bird Runningwater, she brought the audience back to that night in 1973, with the wisdom of someone who has survived the worst.

“Marlon Brando, who was a friend of mine, asked me to refuse the Academy Award for him. And we were in collaboration at that time because he was very aware of the stereotype of Native American Indians in film, television, and the sports industry,” she said, explaining how close they were.

They had participated in active protests since 1960. “So he wrote about a six or seven-page speech, and he asked me to deliver this to the Oscars in 1973 on his behalf.”

Marlon and Sacheen watched the early part of the Oscars at his house. “We were in Marlon Brando time, this Indian time. And so by the time he finished writing that speech, it was about, oh, maybe a quarter after eight. He just took his sweet, lovin’ time.” Brando stayed home; she went to the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion with Brando’s secretary.

The guards almost blocked Sacheen. “They had the executive producer of the Academy Awards, Howard Cox. And so he came up and he talked to us, and his secretary, Alice, had the official invitation for Marlon Brando. So Howard said, ‘Okay.’ And he told me right then, ‘If you read that speech and you go over 60 seconds, I will have you put in handcuffs. You see those police over there? I will have you arrested, put in jail.’

“And he said, ‘You have 60 seconds or less to represent Marlon.’ I said, ‘Okay.’ And I had made this promise to Marlon not to touch that Oscar. And so you could see I wasn’t under any pressure that night.”

When the time came, Sacheen prayed. “I knew that the Creator was with me. I had prayed to my ancestors to be with me that night. And it was with a prayer that I went up there. I went up there like a proud Indian woman with dignity, courage, grace, and humility. And as I began to walk up those steps, I knew that I had to speak the truth.

“But as I walked up those stairs, I knew that people would either be receptive or not. But I had to refuse that Oscar, and I held my hand like this (demonstrates gently pushing it away from her), and I did not touch that statue. And what happened was that I kept my promise to Marlon.”

She was at the same time in awe of Liv Ullman – “one of my favorite actresses!” But she focused on what she came to do, at all costs.

“When I left that stage, I heard some comments from the people back there, and it was, ‘Ooh ooh ooh,’ and the Tomahawk gesture. And I just kept walking in dignity to the four different rooms that I went to.”

Backstage, talking to the press, and not always being well-received, Sacheen tried to explain why Marlon refused the Oscar. She heard more “ooh ooh oohs” than applause.

“And then after that, I held my head high and I left with a car that was waiting for me,” Sacheen recalled.


Now battling various health issues, Sacheen is the same activist and leader that she was that night. “I’m an elder now. I’m 75 years old. Yeah. I’ll tell you, growing old is not for sissies, that’s one thing. And I’m never doing this again. But these performers are great, and I’ve known them most of my life.

“And I’m crossing over soon to the spirit world, and you know, I’m not afraid to die. That’s one thing, I’m not afraid to die, because we come from a ‘we, us, and our’ society. We don’t come from a ‘me, I, myself’ society. And we learn to give away from a very young age. When we are honored, we give.”

To close a historic night, Stewart wanted to be sure that the Academy letter sent to Sacheen in June, asking her forgiveness for that night, had been received and accepted.

Sacheen said yes, and more: “In response to that apology, I wanted to say in 1973, I was a 26-year-old indigenous woman, a member of the Screen Actors Guild. Very few people of color were finding their way through an impractical society that deliberately set out to erase the existence and diversity of native peoples through genocide, and oppression.

“Our generation remained hard at work, and we were not the only ones. In 1973, I fulfilled the request of a friend and ally. I knew the impact and the importance of representing all native people on that night. It was critical for the psyche of all our relations to bring awareness to and interrupt the negative interpretation and representation of Native American people by the film, television, and sports industries.

“I, more than anyone, know the impact of what 60 seconds at the Academy Award can mean then, and now, 50 years later. I have developed a strong sense of self, community, and a good sense of humor. Laughter is good medicine.”