Sacheen Littlefeather, who has died aged 75, was an actress and model of Native American descent; on March 27 1973 she was sent by Marlon Brando to the Academy Awards to refuse his best actor Oscar for The Godfather in protest at the ill-treatment of Native American people by the film industry.
Half an hour before the award was announced, Sacheen Littlefeather had been at Brando’s home as he finished typing his eight-page speech. She arrived at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in Los Angeles, accompanied by the actor’s assistant and with only minutes to spare.
Howard Koch, the producer, insisted that she could not read the whole speech and, if necessary, would be removed from the stage after 60 seconds. “I had promised Marlon that I would not touch that statue if he won. And I had promised Koch that I would not go over 60 seconds. So there were two promises I had to keep,” she recalled.
When Brando’s win was announced by Liv Ullman, Sacheen Littlefeather approached the stage wearing a white buckskin dress and a leather thong headdress. Waving away the statuette offered by Roger Moore, she instead summarised Brando’s views while also referring to a stand-off between Native Americans and the US authorities at Wounded Knee, South Dakota, that had been subject to a media blackout.
In calm and measured voice, she explained to the audience that Brando “very regretfully cannot accept this very generous award”, adding: “And the reasons for this being, are the treatment of American Indians today by the film industry ... 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.”
Some booed, others cheered. Back stage John Wayne, the on-screen slayer of countless Native Indians, was so furious that he reportedly had to be restrained. Others mocked her, miming tomahawk chops and shouting war cries. Announcing the best actress award, Raquel Welch said, “I hope the winner doesn’t have a cause,” while Clint Eastwood presented the best picture award (also for The Godfather) “on behalf of all the cowboys shot in John Ford westerns over the years”. The Academy responded by banning future winners from sending proxies to the microphone.
This was the first time that the Oscars had been broadcast internationally and viewers were perplexed. There were suggestions it was a prank and that she was a hired actor, a Mexican imposter or a stripper. “There’s an old saying, if you don’t like the message, you kill the messenger, and I was the messenger,” she said. Speaking to The Guardian last year, she added: “I think that’s what took people by surprise: that it was so real. It really touches people’s hearts to this day.”
Afterwards Sacheen Littlefeather returned to Brando’s home, where they watched the reaction to her speech on television. They stayed in contact for a time, but gradually their lives went different ways. Yet the subject of how Native Americans are treated and depicted on screen had become a matter for public debate. “We had our time together. We made history together,” she concluded.
She was born Marie Louise Cruz on November 14 1946, the eldest of three daughters of Manuel Cruz, of White Mountain Apache and Yaqui descent, and Geroldine (née Barnitz), whose origins were French, German and Dutch. She was born in the back of a pick-up truck while her parents, who made leather saddles, were travelling to Salinas, California, from their reservation in Arizona, where mixed-race couples were illegal.
In later years she described her father’s volatile temperament and how she was brought up for a time by her maternal grandparents. Her childhood was also dogged by ill health, including a period living in a hospital oxygen tent while suffering from tuberculosis.
When she was 12 her grandfather took her to Carmel Mission, a historic Roman Catholic church, where the bones of a Native American were on display. “I said, ‘This is wrong. This is not an object; this is a human being.’ So I went to the priest and I told him God would never approve of this, and he called me heretic. I had no idea what that was,” she recalled.
She was educated at North Salinas High School and studied Drama at California State College at Hayward, where her interest in Native American ancestry evolved. Travelling around the country, she took part in camp-outs and pow-wows, learnt traditions and dances, made traditional garments and adopted the name Sacheen Littlefeather.
In 1970 she visited Alcatraz when Native Americans were occupying the notorious prison island in protest at the US government’s refusal to acknowledge their land claims. She modelled at a native art exhibition in Oakland, California, took part in an “American Indian Festival” at Foothill College and won a “Miss America Vampire” contest that came with a small role in James Goldstone’s gangster movie The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight (1971) starring Jerry Orbach.
She was also one of 10 “tribal beauties” or “red Indians” who were photographed riding horseback nude for Playboy, though Hugh Hefner, the publisher, rejected the shots as “not erotic enough”. She defended her participation, saying: “Everyone says black is beautiful – we wanted to show that red is too.” Playboy later published her pictures as a stand-alone feature.
Over the years Sacheen Littlefeather gave varying accounts of how she met Brando. In one of them she told how her neighbour was Francis Ford Coppola, who directed The Godfather. “I used to hike the hills of San Francisco every day,” she said. “He’d be sitting on his porch, drinking iced tea.”
After hearing Brando speak about Native Indian rights she wrote a letter to him and one day stopped at Coppola’s house to ask for the actor’s address. Some months later Brando called her at the San Francisco radio station where she was working, though she insisted that she was never romantically involved with the notorious lothario.
While the Oscars incident may have put Native American rights on the map, it did little good for her own acting career. She had a few small film roles but was largely shunned by Hollywood. “I was blacklisted, or you could say ‘red listed’,” she said. Instead, she moved into holistic health care, working among Native Indian communities across the US and writing a health column for the Kiowa tribe newspaper in Oklahoma.
In 2021 her story was told in Sacheen: Breaking the Silence, a short documentary film directed by Peter Spirer. Two months ago, the Academy signalled a change of heart. David Rubin, the Academy’s president, called her 1973 speech “a powerful statement that continues to remind us of the necessity of respect and the importance of human dignity”, adding: “For too long the courage you showed has been unacknowledged. For this, we offer both our deepest apologies and our sincere admiration.”
Sacheen Littlefeather, who had been suffering from breast cancer, met her husband, Charles Koshiway, at a pow-wow in 1970. He died last year. They had no children.
Sacheen Littlefeather, born November 14 1946, died October 2 2022