After 50 Years, the Academy Apologizes for Its Mistreatment of Sacheen Littlefeather

The Academy formally apologizes for its mistreatment of Sacheen Littlefeather
Sacheen Littlefeather at the 1973 Academy AwardsCredit: Getty Images
Littlefeather was asked to turn down the Best Actor Oscar on the behalf of Marlon Brando.

Nearly 50 years after Sacheen Littlefeather made history by turning down the Academy Award for Best Actor on behalf of The Godfather winner Marlon Brando to speak about the negative depiction of Native Americans in Hollywood films and TV, the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences has apologized to her for the abuse she endured while on stage. 

“As you stood on the Oscars stage in 1973 to not accept the Oscar on behalf of Marlon Brando, in recognition of the misrepresentation and mistreatment of Native American people by the film industry, you made a powerful statement that continues to remind us of the necessity of respect and the importance of human dignity,” former Academy President David Rubin wrote in a letter addressed June 18. 

Indiewire reported that Littlefeather, an Indigenous activist and actor, is one of the few people to receive a formal apology from the Academy. She will also be the guest of honor at “an evening of healing and Indigenous celebration” hosted by the Academy Museum in Los Angeles on Sep 17. 

The 1973 Oscars were held during the American Indian Movement’s two-month occupation of Wounded Knee in South Dakota. Brando stood with the protest led by AIM against the military’s controversial treatment of activists at Wounded Knee and boycotted the Oscars by asking Littlefeather to appear on his behalf. 

When Brando won Best Actor for his role in Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather, Littlefeather took the stage, becoming the first Native American woman ever to do so at the Academy Awards. In her 60-second speech, Littlefoot delivered an excerpted version of Brando’s eight pages of prepared remarks about the American media’s “mockery” of Indigenous peoples by only portraying them as “savage, hostile, and evil.” 

The abuse targeted at the then 26-year-old Littlefeather included some of the audience booing and heckling her. Western genre star John Wayne, who was backstage at the time, was reportedly furious, having to physically be restrained from storming the stage. Show producer Howard Kock even made threats of arrest if she went over the 60-second time limit. 

The Academy’s statement said that Littlefeather’s reference to the protest at Wounded Knee also in part “resulted in her being professionally boycotted, personally attacked and harassed, and discriminated against for the last 50 years.” 

Now at 75, Littlefeather’s speech has been recognized by the Academy as “a powerful statement that continues to remind us of the necessity of respect and the importance of human dignity.” 

Littlefeather issued a response.

“Regarding the Academy’s apology to me, we Indians are very patient people—it’s only been 50 years!” said Littlefeather in her statement to the Academy. “We need to keep our sense of humor about this at all times. It’s our method of survival.” 

Sacheen Littlefeather response to Academy's apology
Sacheen Littlefeather campaigning on the streets of San Francisco in 1990Credit: Getty Images

It is profoundly heartening to see how much has changed since I did not accept the Academy Award 50 years ago. I am so proud of each and every person who will appear on stage,” Littlefeather said. 

In a podcast earlier this year with Jacqueline Stewart, a film scholar and director of the Academy Museum, Littlefeather looked back on what compelled her to speak out in 1973.

“I felt that there should be Native people, Black people, Asian people, Chicano people—I felt there should be an inclusion of everyone,” Littlefeather said. “A rainbow of people that should be involved in creating their own image.” 

The Academy’s attempt to right its wrongs is a reminder of how important it is to look back to see how much the film industry has improved or has not improved on representation. Indigenous and First Nations representation had improved in Hollywood immensely in these last few years with shows and films like Reservation Dogs and Prey, which depict diverse characters and their communities. 

We must always fight for representation for all people, both in front and behind the camera. 

The full apology statement from the Academy will be read during the Academy Museum event honoring Littlefeather, who will be in conversation with producer Bird Runningwater, co-chair of the Academy’s Indigenous Alliance. 

Read the Academy’s full statement of reconciliation to Sacheen Littlefeather below.

June 18, 2022

Dear Sacheen Littlefeather,

I write to you today a letter that has been a long time coming on behalf of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, with humble acknowledgment of your experience at the 45th Academy Awards.

As you stood on the Oscars stage in 1973 to not accept the Oscar on behalf of Marlon Brando, in recognition of the misrepresentation and mistreatment of Native American people by the film industry, you made a powerful statement that continues to remind us of the necessity of respect and the importance of human dignity.

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. For too long the courage you showed has been unacknowledged. For this, we offer both our deepest apologies and our sincere admiration.

We cannot realize the Academy’s mission to “inspire imagination and connect the world through cinema” without a commitment to facilitating the broadest representation and inclusion reflective of our diverse global population.

Today, nearly 50 years later, and with the guidance of the Academy’s Indigenous Alliance, we are firm in our commitment to ensuring indigenous voices—the original storytellers—are visible, respected contributors to the global film community. We are dedicated to fostering a more inclusive, respectful industry that leverages a balance of art and activism to be a driving force for progress.

We hope you receive this letter in the spirit of reconciliation and as recognition of your essential role in our journey as an organization. You are forever respectfully engrained in our history.

With warmest regards, 

David Rubin

President, Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences

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