Oscars president apologises to Sacheen Littlefeather over 1973 speech

The Native American activist declined the Best Actor win on behalf of Marlon Brando for 'The Godfather'

Sacheen Littlefeather has been invited to spend an evening of 'healing' with the academy. AFP
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The Academy Awards has apologised to Sacheen Littlefeather almost 50 years after she was booed off the Oscars stage while protesting about the depiction of Native Americans in Hollywood films.

The Academy Museum of Motion Pictures said it will host Littlefeather, now 75, for an evening of “conversation, healing and celebration” next month.

When Marlon Brando won Best Actor for The Godfather, Littlefeather took to the stage wearing a buckskin dress and moccasins, becoming the first Native American woman ever to do so at the Academy Awards. In a 60-second speech, she explained how Brando could not accept the award due to “the treatment of American Indians today by the film industry".

Sacheen Littlefeather appears at the Academy Awards ceremony to announce that Marlon Brando was declining his Oscar in March 1973. AP

Some in the audience booed her. John Wayne, who was backstage at the time, was reportedly furious. The 1973 Oscars were held during the American Indian Movement's two-month occupation of Wounded Knee in South Dakota. In the years since, Littlefeather has said she's been mocked, discriminated against and personally attacked for her brief Academy Awards appearance.

In making the announcement, the Academy Museum shared a letter sent to Littlefeather by academy president David Rubin in June about the moment. Rubin called Littlefeather's speech “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,” wrote Rubin. “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.”

Littlefeather said it is “profoundly heartening to see how much has changed since I did not accept the Academy Award 50 years ago”.

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

At the event in Los Angeles, Littlefeather will sit for a conversation with producer Bird Runningwater, co-chair of the academy's Indigenous Alliance.

In a podcast earlier this year with Jacqueline Stewart, a film scholar and director of the Academy Museum, Littlefeather reflected 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," said Littlefeather. "A rainbow of people that should be involved in creating their own image.”

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Updated: August 16, 2022, 8:35 AM