Sacheen Littlefeather, who endured racist mockery and threats of arrest and violence when she appeared on Marlon Brando’s behalf at the 1973 Oscars and declined his award for Best Actor, has died at the age of 75.
According to Variety, Littlefeather passed away Sunday, October 2nd, following a battle with breast cancer.
As president of the National Native American Affirmative Image Committee, Littlefeather stood in for Brando to protest the mistreatment of American Indians in the film industry. Moments before she took the stage, ceremony producer Howard Koch told her that she would be arrested if she talked for longer than 60 seconds. During her speech, she was mocked with tomahawk chops and ululation, and John Wayne reportedly had to be restrained from charging the podium and attacking her.
“[Brando] very regretfully cannot accept this very generous award,” Littlefeather said, improvising because she didn’t have time to read Brando’s eight pages of prepared remarks. “And the reasons for this being are the treatment of American Indians today by the film industry [audience boos] – excuse me – and on television in movie reruns, and also with recent happenings at Wounded Knee.” This was a reference to the American Indian Movements occupation of Wounded Knee, South Dakota, which was unknown to most Americans because the US Department of Justice had imposed a media blackout.
Earlier this year, the Academy issued a formal apology to Littlefeather for her treatment at the Oscars. “The abuse you endured because of this statement was unwarranted and unjustified,” Academy president David Rubin wrote to Littlefeather in a June 18th letter. “The emotional burden you have lived through and the cost to your own career in our industry are irreparable. For too long the courage you showed has been unacknowledged. For this, we offer both our deepest apologies and our sincere admiration.”
Later in life, Littlefeather worked in hospice care while continuing to work in activism for a number of health-related and Native American issues.