At the 1973 Oscars ceremony, Marlon Brando shocked the audience, and all the viewers at home, by declining to accept his award for Best Actor for his performance in The Godfather. Instead of appearing at the ceremony himself, he sent First Nations activist and actress Sacheen Littlefeather to decline the award and explain that his refusal was due to the mistreatment and poor representation of the First Nation and Native American community in film and TV.
It was the first time a protest had ever occurred during the ceremony, and it sent shockwaves through the Academy. Now, Littlefeather is speaking up about what she endured that night, 50 years ago, and how hallowed High Noon actor John Wayne tried to violently assault her once she got offstage.
“[John Wayne] did not like what I was saying up at the podium,” she told the Academy recently for their A.Frame blog. “So, he came forth in a rage to physically assault and take me off the stage. And he had to be restrained by six security men in order for that not to happen.”
She goes on to speak about the poor reaction from the industry, which included Clint Eastwood, who later mocked her at the podium by suggesting that cowboys should get an apology for being shot in John Ford westerns.
“It was interesting because some people were giving me the tomahawk chop,” she continued. “I thought, 'This is very racist. Very racist indeed.' And I just gracefully walked and ignored them.”
She later says that she returned to Marlon Brando’s house, where she was a guest, and the vitriol from passersby included some taking literal aim at her with their firearms.
“I was met with such hostility and anger, and I nearly paid the price with my life as a result. When I went back to Marlon's house, there was an incident with people shooting at me. And there were two bullet holes that came through the doorway of where I was standing, and I was on the other side of it,” she reveals.
“It's situations like this that make you really think, you know, what if, what if, what if? And yet, I was never allowed to tell my story. Never. Never. And now, 50 years or so later, and here we are for the first time.”
In June, the Academy issued an unreserved apology, 50 years after the incident. “The abuse you endured because of this statement was unwarranted and unjustified,” then-Academy president David Rubin wrote. “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 apology is part of a fuller recognition and celebration of Littlefeather. The statement will be read in full at an Academy Museum event honouring Littlefeather in September. She will participate in a conversation with producer Bird Runningwater, co-chair of the Academy’s Indigenous Alliance.
In 1973, Littlefeather declined to accept Brando’s award with the following speech, prepared on the fly as her full statement was too long for the 60 second slot.
“Hello. My name is Sacheen Littlefeather. I'm Apache and I am president of the National Native American Affirmative Image Committee," she said. "I'm representing Marlon Brando this evening and he has asked me to tell you in a very long speech, which I cannot share with you presently because of time but I will be glad to share with the press afterwards, that he very regretfully cannot accept this very generous award. And the reasons for this being are the treatment of American Indians today by the film industry – excuse me.”
It was at this point the audience began to boo, but some people cheered and clapped for her. She continued, “...and on television in movie reruns, and also with recent happenings at Wounded Knee. I beg at this time that I have not intruded upon this evening and that we will in the future, our hearts and our understandings will meet with love and generosity. Thank you on behalf of Marlon Brando.”
Her mention of Wounded Knee is in reference to the activist organization American Indian Movement which occupied the South Dakota town of Wounded Knee a month before the ceremony to protest the sustained mistreatment of Native Americans. The U.S. Department of Justice imposed media blackout on the standoff.