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Sacheen Littlefeather, activist and actress who turned down Brando’s Oscar, has died

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Sacheen Littlefeather, the actor and activist who turned down Marlon Brando’s 1973 Oscar for “The Godfather” on his behalf in an indelible protest against Hollywood’s portrayal of Native Americans, has died. She was 75 years old.

READ MORE: Supreme Court rules that Native Americans sued in tribal courts can also be sued in federal court

Littlefeather’s niece, Calina Lawrence, confirmed she passed away peacefully on Sunday, surrounded by her loved ones at her home in Marin County, California. The cause was breast cancer, the family said.

Littlefeather’s appearance at the 1973 Oscars would go on to become one of the most famous moments of the awards show. Dressed in a buckskin dress and loafers, Littlefeather took the stage when presenter Roger Moore read Brando’s name as the Best Actor winner.

Speaking to the audience, Littlefeather cited Native American stereotypes in movies and the week-long protest at Wounded Knee in South Dakota as the reason for Brando’s absence. She said Brando wrote “a very long speech” but was limited by time to brief remarks. Producer Howard Koch reportedly warned Littlefeather, then 26, that he would have her arrested if she spoke for more than a minute.

“I beg at this time not to interfere with this evening and that we will in the future, our hearts and understandings will meet in love and generosity,” said Littlefeather, becoming the first Native American woman to appear on stage at the Oscars. .

Although brief, direct and courteous, Littlefeather’s appearance was controversial, receiving a mix of applause and boos from the audience. In the years since, Littlefeather has endured considerable scorn and abuse for her speech, she said.

“I spoke from my heart,” she told The Associated Press days after the Oscars. “These words were written in blood, maybe my own blood. I felt almost like Christ carrying the weight of the cross on his shoulders.

It wasn’t until recently that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences officially addressed the treatment Littlefeather received after her appearance. In August, the film academy has apologized to Littlefeather. Two weeks ago, he hosted an evening of “talk, healing and celebration” in her honor.

“The abuse you suffered because of this statement was unwarranted and unwarranted,” academy president David Rubin wrote in a letter to Littlefeather. “The emotional burden you have experienced and the cost of your own career in our industry is irreparable. For too long, the courage you have shown has gone unrecognized. For this, we offer you both our most sincere apologies and our sincere admiration.

Littlefeather responded in a statement, “We Indians are very patient people, it’s only been 50 years!”

“We have to keep our sense of humor about it at all times,” she added. “It’s our method of survival.”

Littlefeather was born Marie Cruz on November 14, 1946 in Salinas, California. Her father was from the White Mountain Apache and Yaqui tribes and her mother was white. Both were saddlers. They separated when Littlefeather was four, after which she was largely raised by her grandparents. She took the name Sacheen Littlefeather after high school. Sacheen, she said, was what her father had called her; the surname comes from a feather she often wore in her hair.

Littlefeather’s entry into acting matched her activism. She was part of the Native American occupation of Alcatraz Island in 1969, she said, and began performing with the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco in the early 70s.

Littlefeather met Brando through his neighbor, “Godfather” director Francis Ford Coppola. She had known Brando for about a year before he called her the day before the 1973 ceremony, invited her to his house and asked her to come in his place.

Political speeches at the Oscars were still rare then, and some in attendance saw the brief address as a breach of decorum and one that raised a topic not everyone was keen to examine.

“I don’t know if I have to present this award on behalf of all the cowboys shot in all of John Ford’s westerns over the years,” Clint Eastwood said later that evening, while presenting the award for best film. Presenting Best Actress, presenter Raquel Welch cracked, “I hope they don’t have a cause.”

“I went there thinking I could make a difference,” Littlefeather told People magazine in 1990. “I was very naive. I talked to people about the oppression. They said, ‘You spoil our evening.’ »

Littlefeather described the overwhelmingly white crowd as “a sea of ​​Clorox”. She said some members of the public did the so-called “tomahawk stunt” and then Brando’s house was shot down.

Over the years, Littlefeather added to the lore, describing John Wayne, who was backstage at the theater as she spoke, as “ready to get me off stage.” In 2016, Littlefeather told the Los Angeles Times that Wayne “had to be restrained by six security guards.” Film scholar Farran Smith Nehme has since researched the supposed incident and found no evidence that it happened.

But it was indisputable that Littlefeather’s life had been altered by those 60 seconds. After the Oscars, her credentials as an actress and activist Littlefeather had posed in 1972 for Playboy, which she championed as proof that “red was beautiful” was questioned in the tabloids and elsewhere. His opportunities as an actor dried up. Littlefeather said she was “unlisted” by the industry. She fell out of show business and in the decades that followed worked primarily as an activist for Native Americans.

At the academy event last month, Littlefeather, then in a wheelchair, said despite all the hardships she faced after the Oscars, she would do it again.

“I was representing all of the Indigenous voices there, because we’ve never been heard that way before,” Littlefeather said. “And if I had to pay the price of admission, then it didn’t matter, because those doors had to be opened like Yosemite Sam. Somebody had to do it.”

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