Sacheen Littlefeather, activist who gave Marlon Brando's Oscars speech, dies aged 75

The Academy formally apologised to the actress this year after she was booed off stage in 1973 while protesting the depiction of Native Americans in Hollywood films

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Sacheen Littlefeather, the Native American actress and activist who rejected Marlon Brandon's Oscar for The Godfather on his behalf in 1973, has died aged 75.

Littlefeather died on Sunday at her home in Novato, North California, surrounded by loved ones, according to a statement sent out by her carer.

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which this year apologised to Littlefeather after she was booed off stage nearly 50 years ago and held a celebration in her honour two weeks ago, announced her death on social media on Sunday night.

In March 2018, Littlefeather revealed she had stage 4 breast cancer.

Born Marie Louise Cruz on November 14, 1946 in Salinas, California, Littlefeather receive a full scholarship to study acting in San Francisco and enjoyed a successful career while turning to activism.

The response to Littlefeather's Oscars speech is widely considered one of the darkest moments in the Academy's 93-year history.

When Brando was named as Best Actor for his role in the mafia film, he decided to boycott the ceremony. with Littlefeather 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 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, whom she had met when giving a presentation in Washington on race and minorities.

She said the refusal was in protest of the film industry’s treatment of Native Americans and to draw attention to events at Wounded Knee, South Dakota, where 200 members of the American Indian Movement occupied the town and demanded the US government resume treaty discussions and honour agreements.

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.

The 1973 Oscars were held during AIM's two-month occupation of Wounded Knee. In the years since, Littlefeather has said she had been mocked, discriminated against and attacked for her brief Academy Awards appearance.

In August this year, the Academy formally apologised and held an evening of “conversation, healing and celebration” this month.

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.”

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Updated: October 03, 2022, 4:14 AM