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Sacheen Littlefeather, Native American activist known for Oscar speech, dies at 75

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Native American activist Sacheen Littlefeather — who cemented her place in history when she turned down actor Marlon Brando’s Oscar at the 1973 Academy Awards — died Sunday at age 75.

According to her caretaker, Littlefeather died around noon surrounded by loved ones at her home in Novato, California. She had been battling breast cancer since 2018 and the disease has spread in recent years.

Her death came just two weeks after she was honored at a celebration hosted by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, where she spoke of her approaching end.

“I’ll be moving into the spirit world soon and you know, I’m not afraid to die,” she said at the event. “Because we come from a we/us/our society. We do not come from a me/me/myself society. And we learn to give away at a very young age. When we are honored, we give.”

The Academy, announcing her death Sunday night, had formally apologized in June to Littlefeather for its treatment of her after the 1973 Oscars.

Speaking on behalf of Marlon Brando at the 45th Academy Awards, Littlefeather declined the Best Actor award for his role in Godfather.
Bettmann Archive

Littlefeather, then 26, had attended the awards ceremony in place of Brando, who had decided to boycott the awards in protest at Hollywood’s portrayal and treatment of Native Americans and to acknowledge the continued occupation of Wounded Knee by the American Indian Movement.

The activist — and actress herself — took to the stage rejecting the Oscar Brando winning for “The Godfather” and, at his request, gave a speech denouncing the treatment of Native Americans.

Littlefeather, dressed in traditional Apache attire, told the star-studded audience at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion and 86 million viewers watching from home that Brando would not accept the prize.

“He unfortunately cannot accept this very generous award and the reasons for this are the treatment of American Indians today by the film industry and on television in film reruns, as well as with recent events at Wounded Knee,” Littlefeather said to a mix of applause and boos.

Brando had handed her an eight-page speech he had written, but she was unable to read it all due to the time constraints of the awards ceremony. The New York Times published the full speech three days later.

After her appearance, Littlefeather faced significant backlash from media and conservative Hollywood elites. She later said the protest stunt ruined her acting career – because she said her guild membership had been revoked and she was, in fact, blacklisted by the industry.

“I was blacklisted — or, you could say, ‘redlisted,'” Littlefeather said in a 2018 documentary about her life. “Johnny Carson, Dick Cavett and others didn’t want me on their shows. … The doors were shut tightly, never to open again.”

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Littlefeather onstage at the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures on September 17, 2022 in Los Angeles, California.
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Littlefeather after refusing Brando’s prize on his behalf. The move was intended to protest Hollywood’s treatment of American Indians.
AP

Nearly 50 years later, in June, she finally received an apology from the Academy.

“The abuse you have endured because of this statement was unwarranted and unwarranted,” wrote then-AMPAS president David Rubin in a June 18 letter to Littlefeather. “The emotional burden you have endured and the cost to your own career in our industry is irreparable.”

Rubin apologized and praised the activist.

“For too long the courage you have shown has not been recognized,” he said. “For this, we offer both our deepest apologies and our sincere admiration.”

Littlefeather said the Academy’s apology shocked her.

“I was stunned. I never thought I’d live to see the day I’d hear this, experience this,” Littlefeather said. The Hollywood Reporter in August. “When I was on stage in 1973, I was there alone.”

Last month, the Academy held a night of reflection with Littlefeather as the guest of honor at the Academy Museum.

“I hereby accept this apology, not just to me, but in recognition, knowing that it was not just for me, but for all of our nations who need to hear and deserve this apology tonight,” she said at the ceremony. “Look at our people. Look at each other and be proud that we stand as survivors, all of us.”

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Littlefeather had been a Native American Rights activist all her life.
AP

Littlefeather was born Marie Louise Cruz in Salinas, California on November 14, 1946. Her father was Apache and Yaqui, while her mother was white. Raised primarily by her maternal grandparents, she began connecting with her native roots when she attended California State University, where she found other activists who rebranded her.

She participated in the Indigenous occupation effort to reclaim Alcatraz Island in 1969 and served as chair of the National Native American Affirmative Image Committee while pursuing her acting career.

Littlefeather later left Hollywood and began a career in holistic health with a focus on traditional indigenous medicines.

She also co-founded the non-profit National American Indian Performing Arts Registry in the 1980s and remained an advocate for Native American representation in Hollywood throughout her life.

Two weeks ago, at the Academy Museum event, Littlefeather asked others to stand in their truths in memory of her.

“When I am gone, always remember that when you stand up for your truth, you will keep my voice and the voices of our nations and our people alive,” she said.

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