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Sacheen Littlefeather’s eternal challenge to Hollywood and America

At the Oscars, she didn’t just speak on Brando’s behalf. She voiced the real-world harm of Hollywood’s misrepresentation of indigenous people.

Sacheen Littlefeather at the 1973 Academy Awards ceremony in Los Angeles.Associated Press

Sacheen Littlefeather, who died Sunday, is more than an Academy Awards footnote.

Nearly 50 years ago as millions watched, Littlefeather called out this nation’s violence against indigenous people. On Hollywood’s biggest night ― and in its own house — she indicted the industry that shaped and sold as entertainment denigrating portrayals of this land’s original inhabitants, enduring images that allowed some to justify devastating brutality.

In 1973, everyone expected Marlon Brando to win the best actor Oscar for his role in “The Godfather.” Few expected 26-year-old actress and activist Littlefeather to walk to the stage when his name was announced. As “The Godfather’s” melancholy theme swelled, actor Roger Moore stepped forward to hand Brando’s Oscar to Littlefeather. She gently raised her open hand to him in a gesture that she would not take it.


Dressed in traditional buckskin, Littlefeather introduced herself: “I’m Apache and I’m president of the National Native American Affirmative Image Committee.” She said she was “representing” Brando who “very regretfully cannot accept this very generous award and the reasons for this being are the treatment of American Indians today and on television in movie reruns and also with recent happenings at Wounded Knee.”

In 1973, members of the American Indian Movement occupied Wounded Knee, located on South Dakota’s Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, where at least 150 members of the Sioux tribe were massacred by US troops in 1890. The standoff against federal officers ended 71 days later with two indigenous people dead and hundreds arrested.

During her speech, Littlefeather was cheered and jeered. She later said actor John Wayne tried to physically attack her backstage. Wayne, of course, built his career in films that depicted “Indians” (usually white actors in red-face) as whooping savages whose only purpose was to menace white people and be dramatically slaughtered by them. Through such movies, Wayne became a broad-shoulder emblem of the so-called selfless heroism that made America great for white people but no one else.


Hollywood served as white supremacy’s public relations department.

But in less than 90 seconds, Littlefeather exposed the industry’s lies and damaging American policies against indigenous people. She upset the careful choreography of the Oscars — celebrities, formalwear, boring banter — and delivered a history lesson most of us never learned in school or saw in a movie theater or on a TV show.

If Hollywood harbored ill feelings about Brando’s rejection of its little golden trinket, they were fleeting. A year later he was nominated for a best actor Oscar for “Last Tango in Paris.” He was also nominated in 1990 as best supporting actor in “A Dry White Season.” He was invited onto talk shows to discuss the iconic Oscar moment that didn’t really belong to him.

But as an indigenous woman, Littlefeather was not afforded such generosity. She was mocked during the ceremony and became a punchline, which only proved her point about the foul treatment of indigenous people. Some claimed she wasn’t Native American. When her acting career stalled — no one would hire her, she later said in interviews — she turned full-time to activism.

Like US sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos, who were expelled from the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City after they raised their black-gloved fists in a Black Power salute as the national anthem played during the medal ceremony; and later, as quarterback Colin Kaepernick was robbed of his NFL career when he took a knee before games in a silent protest against police violence and racial injustice, Littlefeather was punished for holding up a mirror and daring this nation to look at itself.


Recalling her Oscar moment, Littlefeather said in an Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences interview, “I had prayed to my ancestors to be with me that night. And it was with prayer that I went up there. I went up there like a proud Indian woman, with dignity, with courage, with grace, and with humility. And, as I began to walk up those steps, I knew that I had to speak the truth.”

At 75, Littlefeather outlived most of her critics. Earlier this year she finally received recognition for her “powerful statement” and a formal apology from the academy: “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.”

Of course, both the acknowledgement and apology were long overdue, but at least they were delivered in Littlefeather’s lifetime, something rare for those who stand up for justice. As racists caterwaul about inclusive and diverse casting, remember that night when a young indigenous woman pierced Hollywood’s self-aggrandizing soirée to speak the truth about inequality and representation that often remain unheard, but still matter today.


Renée Graham is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at renee.graham@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @reneeygraham.