The Academy Apologizes To Sacheen Littlefeather For Her Treatment At The 1973 Academy Awards (Exclusive)


Sacheen Littlefeather was booed onstage at the Oscars in 1973, heckled offstage with mock ululations and so-called “tomahawk chops,” and threatened with arrest and physical assault.


Nearly half a century later, she will return to the Academy as an honored guest for an evening of reflection at the Academy Museum, which will include something she never imagined: a formal apology from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

“I was taken aback. “I never thought I’d live to see the day when I’d be hearing this, experiencing this,” Littlefeather (Apache/Yaqui/Ariz.), now 75, says of receiving the Academy’s statement, which was first presented to her privately in June. “When I stood at the podium in 1973, I was alone.”


Back then, a 26-year-old Littlefeather took the stage at Marlon Brando’s request to decline the best actor award (for his role in The Godfather) on his behalf, in an instantly historic moment in both Oscars and live television history. She had two promises to keep: not to touch the statuette (as directed by Brando), and to limit her comments to 60 seconds.

“[Brando] very regretfully cannot accept this very generous award,” Littlefeather said, knowing she wouldn’t have time to read from the actor’s eight typed pages of prepared remarks. “And the reasons for this are the current treatment of American Indians in the film industry [the audience begins to boo] — excuse me — and on television in movie reruns, as well as recent events at Wounded Knee.” (A month before the ceremony, the activist organization American Indian Movement had occupied the South Dakota town of Wounded Knee to protest the ongoing mistreatment of Native Americans, a standoff that was under a U.S. Department of Justice-imposed media blackout at the time of Littlefeather’s televised appearance at the Oscars.)


Littlefeather’s 60-second plea for justice resulted in immediate and enduring personal backlash. She says that in the wings, John Wayne had to be restrained from storming the stage to physically attack her, while in the aftermath, her identity and integrity were impugned (the rumors were so abiding that in 2012, Dennis Miller mocked Elizabeth Warren by calling her “as much Indian as that stripper chick Brando sent to pick up his Oscar”). Littlefeather, who had acted in a few films before her infamous moment, says that the federal government threatened to shut down any talk shows or productions that put her on the air.

“The abuse you endured because of this statement was unwarranted and unjustified,” then-Academy president David Rubin wrote in the organization’s apology letter, dated June 18. “The emotional toll you’ve endured, as well as the cost to your own career in our industry, are irreparable.” For far too long, your bravery has gone unnoticed. For this, we offer both our deepest apologies and our sincere admiration.”

The statement of apology will be read in full at the Sept. 17 Academy Museum event honoring Littlefeather, who will participate in a conversation with producer Bird Runningwater (Cheyenne/Mescalero Apache/N.M.), co-chair of the Academy’s Indigenous Alliance. It was Runningwater who first reached out to Littlefeather on behalf of the Academy, as part of the museum’s ongoing efforts to revisit the organization’s past and determine its future through a more expansive, inclusive lens. “Bird gave me a call — on the phone, of course. He tried to send smoke signals but they wouldn’t fit underneath the door,” jokes Littlefeather. Runningwater and fellow Academy Inclusion Advisory Committee member Heather Rae cultivated a relationship with the lifelong activist, paving the way for her to record an episode for the Academy Museum podcast, released in June, as well as a visual history for the Academy Oral History Projects, to be released next month.

An Evening with Sacheen Littlefeather, which will be free to the public via online reservations, will also feature a land acknowledgment from Virginia Carmelo (Tongva/S. Calif.) and performances by traditional vocalist and singer Calina Lawrence (Suquamish/Wash.), the San Manuel Bird Singers (San Manuel/Calif.), Michael Bellanger (Ojibwe/Minn. and Kickapoo/Okla.) and the All Nation Singers and Dancers and Steve Bohay (Kiowa/Okla.) and the Sooner Nation Singers and Dancers, as well as remarks from Rubin and incoming Academy president Janet Yang, Academy CEO Bill Kramer and Assemblymember James Ramos (Serrano/Cahuilla/So. Calif.). Academy Museum director and president Jacqueline Stewart and Earl Neconie (Kiowa/Okla.) will emcee the evening

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