In 1973, Marlon Brando refused the Academy Award for Best Actor for drama movie the Godfather. In his stead, Sacheen Littlefeather, a Native American woman, delivered a speech on the mistreatment of her people to a wave of abuse. After almost 50 years, the Academy has issued an apologised to her for what happened.
“The abuse you endured because of this statement was unwarranted and unjustified. The emotional burden you have lived through and the cost to your own career in our industry are irreparable,” David Rubin, former Academy president, states in a letter to Littlefeather. “For too long the courage you showed has been unacknowledged. For this, we offer both our deepest apologies and our sincere admiration.”
During the 1973 ceremony, Liv Ullman and James Bond actor Roger Moore presented the Best Actor category. Brando wins, but Littlefeather comes up to the pedestal instead, and rejects the statue in his name. She explains that Brando’s given her a long speech to read out, but she’s too limited by time, and states that Brando cannot accept the Oscar due to the way the film industry exploits Native American people in TV series and movies.
She references the Wounded Knee Occupation, where a number of Native American people occupied the town of Wounded Knee as a form of protest. The demonstration was to highlight the American government’s lack of protections for Indigenous populations.
Littlefeather was the first Native American woman to even step on-stage during the Academy Awards. A working actor at the time, her presence and message got a mixed reception. She’s to be honoured by a live conversation with the Academy on September 17, where she’ll receive this apology in person. It’s an opportunity a long time coming, and a moment she’s incredibly grateful for.
“We Indians are very patient people – it’s only been 50 years! We need to keep our sense of humour about this at all times. It’s our method of survival,” she says. “I never thought I’d live to see the day for this program to take place, featuring such wonderful Native performers and Bird Runningwater, a television and film producer who also guided the Sundance Institute’s commitment to Indigenous filmmakers for 20 years through the Institute’s Labs and Sundance Film Festival. This is a dream come true.”
Thankfully, times have changed. While Native American representation isn’t where it should be, it is growing. Just recently, the Predator movie Prey came out with a full Comanche dub on Disney Plus and Hulu. This event with Littlefeather suggests the tide is changing for the better still.