An actor and activist, Sacheen Littlefeather caused a national stir in 1973 when, while accepting an Academy Award on behalf of Marlon Brando, spoke out about the injustices visited upon Native Americans. What followed was a life devoted to raising awareness and fighting for equality for her brethren. She lived her life boldly, and her accomplishments and impact put her on Project Bold Life’s list of 2022’s Lives Boldly Lived (and lost).
Early Life and Career
Born as Marie Louise Cruz on November 14, 1946, in Salinas, California, Littlefeather was the daughter of Manuel Ybarra Cruz, a White Mountain Apache and Yaqui, and leather stamper Geroldine Cruz, who was of French, German, and Dutch descent. Littlefeather and her family could only afford to live in a shack under the cruel hands of her father until their eventual divorce.
Throughout her childhood and teenage years, Littlefeather lived in a predominantly white community and grew up with her two white grandparents for most of it. Her upbringing made it difficult for her to fit in. Her passion for activism started as an active member of the 4-H, a club dedicated to conservation and environmentalism.
During her college years, she began embracing her Native American heritage with the help of the school’s Native American community. Soon after, Littlefeather became more active in protests and participated in the Native American Occupation of Alcatraz.
After finishing school, she entered the entertainment industry as a model and small-time actress. While pursuing her career, she remained resolute in her mission for the rights of Indigenous Americans. Littlefeather soon became the spokesperson of the National American Indian Council and was a prominent critic of President Nixon’s budget cuts for the Native population.
Despite her love of acting, her identity as a Native American prevented her from getting consistent work offers in Hollywood. Littlefeather only had seven film credits to her name, and two were for unnamed roles.
“I was born into poverty. And my parents’ marriage was illegal because my father was an Apache and Yaqui man. And my mother was white. I was raised by my two white grandparents, so there was hardly anybody that I could identify with.” -Sacheen Littlefeather
Acting Pursuits and the 1973 Academy Awards
The lack of acting opportunities left Littlefeather to accept odd jobs and gigs around the industry. At the time, offers were scarce for actors who didn’t fit the industry’s white European look and style.
Although the pay was poor and the opportunities rare, one of her gigs gave her a chance to encounter director Francis Coppola. With Coppola’s help, Littlefeather was able to meet Marlon Brando. “The Godfather” actor and Littlefeather soon became friends due to their mutual interests in civil rights.
During this time, Sacheen led the Affirmative Image Committee, a group protesting the film and television industry’s savage depictions of Native Americans. The committee was also an active supporter of the Wounded Knee occupation in the early 1970s.
Her friendship with Brando led to her memorable speech at the 45th Academy Awards, when Littlefeather stood up and refused Brando’s Oscar (for The Godfather) on behalf of the actor. Although her Oscar appearance was short and abrupt, her passionate and moving 60-second speech about the industry’s stereotypes and the country’s prejudice against Native Americans became a historical television event. It was also a significant step for Native American protestors in their fight for visibility and equality.
“Hello. My name is Sacheen Littlefeather. I’m Apache and I am president of the National Native American Affirmative Image Committee. I’m representing Marlon Brando this evening and he has asked me to tell you in a very long speech… 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 – and on television in movie reruns, and also with recent happenings at Wounded Knee.” -Sacheen Littlefeather
Continuing Activism for Change
While her heartfelt words at the Oscars garnered her and the movement much-needed exposure, many were hostile and unaccepting of Littlefeather’s appearance and speech. Moreover, it inevitably ended her acting career after the industry boycotted her.
Despite the backlash, Littlefeather continued her fight against social injustices. The actress pushed for the change of offensive mascots, formed Native American theater troupes, and raised awareness for AIDS.
Five decades after the 1973 Oscars, the Academy acknowledged its mistreatment of Littlefeather and apologized, stating that the abuse and harassment she endured was unwarranted.
“Please, when I am gone, always be reminded that whenever you stand for your truth, you will be keeping my voice and the voices of our Nations and our people alive.” -Sacheen Littlefeather
On October 2, 2022, a few weeks after the event, Littlefeather died of breast cancer. She was 75. Her advocacies cost her a career in showbiz… but in return, she became an embodiment of strength–and bold living–for everyone standing up to their beliefs.
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