What happened at the 1973 Oscars with Sacheen Littlefeather and Marlon Brando?

The Native American activist has received an apology from the organisers of the Academy Awards, 50 years after the fateful incident

Sacheen Littlefeather claimed John Wayne had to be held back by security during her peaceful onstage demonstration. AP
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The Oscars ceremony has been a magnet for controversy since its inception. However, the outburst Sacheen Littlefeather faced in 1973 is one of the darkest moments in its 93-year history.

It all began when Marlon Brando was named as Best Actor for his role in The Godfather.

Brando was considered a front runner for the prize. What was unforeseen, however, was his decision to boycott the ceremony, with Littlefeather, a Native American actress and civil rights activist, taking to the stage in his place.

As Littlefeather refused to take the statuette from British actor Roger Moore — who was presenting the award with Norwegian actress Liv Ullmann — the theme song to The Godfather was brusquely cut, the applause dwindled and the mirthful atmosphere at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion was overtaken by hushed confusion.

Littlefeather, wearing a traditional Apache buckskin dress, then introduced herself to the elite of Hollywood before saying she was declining the award on behalf of Brando.

She said the refusal was in protest of the film industry’s treatment of Native Americans and to draw attention to the recent events in Wounded Knee, South Dakota, which saw 200 members of the American Indian Movement occupy the town demanding the US government resume treaty discussions, as well as honour previous agreements.

Reactions were, for the most part, sordid.

Booing filled the venue and was juxtaposed by cheers. Littlefeather was then escorted past jeering celebrities and towards the press, with whom she shared Brando’s full 739-word speech.

According to Oscars producer Howard Koch and director Marty Pasetta, John Wayne was among those waiting on the sidelines. Wayne, renowned for his western and war films, had to be restrained by security to prevent the actor from forcing Littlefeather off the stage.

It wouldn’t end there. While presenting the award for Best Actress later that night, Raquel Welch said she hoped “the winner doesn’t have a cause".

While presenting the award for Best Picture, Clint Eastwood said he was presenting it "on behalf of all the cowboys shot in John Ford westerns over the years".

Sacheen Littlefeather said she was threatened and jeered at during the fateful 1973 Oscars ceremony. AFP

Littlefeather was the first person from an ethnic minority to use the ceremony as a place to demonstrate.

"I was the first person of colour to make or utilise the Oscars as a political platform, to tell people that we don't have jobs in the industry, that we don't have people of colour working in unison there among the industry itself — that we have a stereotype that we have to deal with,” she told Vice in 2016.

“I had only 60 seconds or less and I kept my promise. Remember, I was making a profound statement: I did not use my fist, I did not use profanity, I used grace and elegance and quiet strength as my tools.

"I was escorted [off the stage] by two security people who kept everyone at a distance from me so that I was protected. I remember some people making some very stereotypical sounds," she said, adding she was jeered at with war cries and disparaging “tomahawk chops".

“Oh, I got threats,” Littlefeather said. “They said: ‘Why did they send a woman to do a man’s job?’ [The people backstage] said they’d give me 60 seconds, or they’d arrest me. John Wayne was in the wings, ready to have me taken off stage. He had to be restrained by six security guards. Afterward people questioned my authenticity, they said I wasn’t even Indian.

“I just blessed them and went on,” she said. “People are only a product of their education, they're only a product of where they come from. So, you have to bless them and move forward."

The Academy Awards organisers admitted the experience has adversely affected Littlefeather’s personal and professional life, leading her to being boycotted, personally harassed, attacked and discriminated against.

"The abuse you endured was unwarranted and unjustified," academy president David Rubin said in the letter, which was sent to Littlefeather in June and made public on Monday.

"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."

The letter of apology will be read in its entirety at the Academy Museum next month in an evening of “conversation, healing, and celebration”.

Littlefeather responded to the letter and the planned event, which will also see people invited on stage to speak, with a mix of humour and appreciation.

“Regarding the Academy’s apology to me, 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 said.

“This is a dream come true. 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,” she said.

The programme will feature a range of Native American talents in Hollywood, including producer Bird Runningwater and traditional vocalist and singer Calina Lawrence.

While Littlefeather was ostracised by Hollywood circles, the actress has been far from idle in the last 50 years and has continued her activism.

She has criticised and helped change the use of Native American-themed mascots in two California schools. In 1978, she protested the seal hunt in Newfoundland with politicians and other activists. She is a member of the American Indian Centre, the oldest group of its kind in the US, and has taken part in a number of initiatives by the institution.

She has worked to push for more Native American representation in entertainment and is credited as a founding member of the American Indian Registry for the Performing Arts. She also appeared in several films following the Oscars controversry, including Winterhawk and Johnny Firecloud. She has also been featured in several documentaries, most recently in the 2019 short Sacheen.

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Updated: August 16, 2022, 11:07 AM