The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is making amends.
On Monday, nearly 50 years after actress and Native American activist Sacheen Littlefeather took the stage on behalf of Marlon Brando at the 1973 Oscars to decline his Best Actor award for “The Godfather”, the Academy offered a public apology for her treatment at the ceremony.
Then just 26-years-old, Littlefeather was the first Native woman ever to stand on the Academy Awards stage, receiving loud boos from the audience, as well as being the target of racial epithets and gestures. She was also threatened with violence offstage.
Littlefeather will also be the guest of honour for a conversation onstage at the Academy Museum on Sept. 17, and is partnering with the museum for a program offering “a reflection aimed at healing.”
Read the full apology letter from the Academy:
STATEMENT OF RECONCILIATION
June 18, 2022
Dear Sacheen Littlefeather,
I write to you today a letter that has been a long time coming on behalf of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, with humble acknowledgment of your experience at the 45th Academy Awards.
As you stood on the Oscars stage in 1973 to not accept the Oscar on behalf of Marlon Brando, in recognition of the misrepresentation and mistreatment of Native American people by the film industry, you made a powerful statement that continues to remind us of the necessity of respect and the importance of human dignity.
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. For this, we offer both our deepest apologies and our sincere admiration.
We cannot realize the Academy’s mission to “inspire imagination and connect the world through cinema” without a commitment to facilitating the broadest representation and inclusion reflective of our diverse global population.
Today, nearly 50 years later, and with the guidance of the Academy’s Indigenous Alliance, we are firm in our commitment to ensuring indigenous voices—the original storytellers—are visible, respected contributors to the global film community. We are dedicated to fostering a more inclusive, respectful industry that leverages a balance of art and activism to be a driving force for progress.
We hope you receive this letter in the spirit of reconciliation and as recognition of your essential role in our journey as an organization. You are forever respectfully engrained in our history.
With warmest regards,
President, Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences
In her speech at the 1973 Oscars, Littlefeather said that Brando could not accept the award, “And the reasons for this being, are the treatment of American Indians today by the film industry … and on television, in movie re-runs, 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 understands, will meet with love and generosity.”
Speaking recently with the Academy’s website A.Frame, Littlefeather recalled getting the call from Brando asking her to attend the awards in his stead.
“I was surprised as anybody, because I was planning on watching the Academy Awards on television just like everybody else,” she said. “I was just floored. I said [to Brando], ‘Well, I don’t have any evening wear.’ ‘Well, what can you wear?’ I said, ‘Well, when I dance at pow wows in the Bay Area, I have my buckskin dress, and my moccasins and hair ties.’ And Marlon said to me, ‘Well, that sounds okay.’ And that’s what I wore.”
On the reaction to her speech, Littlefeather remembered, “[John Wayne] did not like what I was saying up at the podium. 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 added, “It was interesting because some people were giving me the tomahawk chop. I thought, ‘This is very racist. Very racist indeed.’ And I just gracefully walked and ignored them. They put two armed guards around me, and said they were going to take me to these different press rooms. One was for television press, radio press, and international press. And I would have about 10 minutes in each press room, and that was it. And then, I was escorted out the door.”
Looking back on it all now, Littlefeather reflected, “When I was up there refusing the award, I dreamed about someone like [my niece] Calina. And someone who would break through the barriers and do her own thing, whether doors would be open. And where she would be able to go through them, to be able to make her dreams come true, of singing, of acting and doing. This is what I did. She is the beginning of a whole new agenda. And so, I passed the baton on to her. And I do it gratefully and thankfully. ”