Sacheen Littlefeather has been a Native American icon for decades. Born Marie Louise Cruz, she later adopted her name based on a nickname given to her by her late father. She was an actress who graciously dedicated her time to activism while working to understand and protect her Native American culture. Living in the public eye, she gradually became well-known for leading her life with grace.
Littlefeather’s career in activism began with the famous Occupation of Alcatraz. This movement was a 19-month-long protest held by 89 individuals on the Island of Alcatraz. Their crusade brought awareness to the American Indians’ oppression and eventually set the standard for generations of Native American protests.
Littlefeather became well-known in the media as a Native American advocate due to the events that transpired in 1973 during the 45th Academy Awards. While working for director Francis Ford Coppola, she became friends with actor Marlon Brando through their common interest in Native American issues.
At just the age of 26, Littlefeather attended the ceremony on Brando’s behalf. After the announcement of his win for best actor in “The Godfather,” Littlefeather took to the stage in full Native American attire and formally rejected the award.
Brando decided to boycott the ceremony beforehand in support of the American Indian Movement (AIM). Their combined protest of the film industry’s misrepresentations of Native Americans influenced this act of protest. As Littlefeather revealed in her speech, the Wounded Knee Massacre also played a role in their decision to turn down the award.
Her speech, which was condensed from the original 739-word script, received mixed reviews from the Oscars attendees. Numerous individuals could be heard clapping in support of her cause, whereas others cruelly booed her as she spoke.
“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,” concluded Littlefeather. This brave stand against the historically white-dominated industry demonstrated her character and willingness to wholeheartedly represent her community.
However, her bravery attracted plenty of opposition. The discrimination she endured immediately afterward was incredibly brutal. Littlefeather disclosed that many audience members used the “Tomahawk chop” to humiliate her as she walked off the stage. Additionally, the federal government threatened to ban her from making any appearances on talk shows or broadcast productions after the incident. More notably, actor John Wayne had to be physically restrained from attacking her during a violent outburst. Littlefeather did not receive a formal apology for the abusive backlash and bullying until the Academy sent her an official statement in 2022. The apology was read in full at a ceremony dedicated to honoring Littlefeather. “The emotional burden you have lived through and the cost to your own career in our industry are irreparable.”
Littlefeather was a trailblazer. By delivering her impactful speech all those years ago, she became the first woman of color and the first Indigenous woman to make a political statement at the Oscars.
Just months after the apology, Littlefeather passed away following a difficult battle with breast cancer. Nevertheless, her activism and pop cultural presence left an unparalleled legacy in her wake. Her fight against insidious Native American stereotypes and the systematic erasure of Indigenous peoples would continue to create ripples within her community and the world beyond it for decades to come.