'It feels like the sacred circle is completing itself before I go in this life.'
A little more than two weeks after receiving a formal apology from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for the abuse she suffered at the 1973 Academy Awards, Native American rights activist Sacheen Littlefeather has died at age 75.
Littlefeather is a Native American civil rights activist born to an Apache and Yaqui father and a European American mother. Littlefeather made history at the 1973 Academy Awards by forcing Hollywood and America to confront its mistreatment of Native Americans by rejecting Brando's award on his behalf.
Dressed in traditional clothing, she explained that Brando "very regretfully cannot accept this generous award, the reasons for this being … the treatment of American Indians today by the film industry and on television in movie reruns, and also with recent happenings at Wounded Knee."
Littlefeather was courteous and nonconfrontational in her brief speech, but still wound up the target of jokes that night. “I don’t know if I should present this award on behalf of all the cowboys shot in all the John Ford westerns over the years,” Clint Eastwood said later in the evening while presenting the award for best picture. Presenting best actress, Raquel Welch cracked: “I hope they haven’t got a cause.”
Littlefeather later said that John Wayne attempted to assault her backstage.
"A lot of people were making money off of that racism of the Hollywood Indian," Littlefeather told KQED. "Of course, they’re going to boo. They don't want their evening interrupted."
Three months later, Brando explained his reasoning for rejecting the award on "The Dick Cavett Show."
"I felt there was an opportunity," Brando told Cavett. "Since the American Indian hasn't been able to have his voice heard anywhere in the history of the United States, I thought it was a marvelous opportunity to voice his opinion to 85 million people. I felt that he had a right to, in view of what Hollywood has done to him."
Nearly 50 years after the incident, the Academy issued a formal apology this past August.
"The abuse you endured because of this statement was unwarranted and unjustified," former Academy President David Rubin wrote in a letter to Littlefeather, CNN reported. "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."
On September 17, the Academy hosted an event honoring Littlefeather at the David Geffen Theater for more than 800 people, nearly half of which are Native American. Littlefeather asked them to stand before she formally accepted the apology.
“I am here accepting this apology, not only for me alone but as acknowledgment, knowing that it was not only for me, but for all of our nations that also need to hear and deserve this apology tonight,” she addressed the crowd. “Look at our people. Look at each other and be proud that we stand as survivors, all of us. Please, when I’m 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.”
Littlefeather was also part of the Native American occupation of Alcatraz Island in 1969 and began acting with San Francisco’s American Conservatory Theater in the early ’70s. Her career in show business was derailed after the Oscars controversy and she claims she was “red-listed” from the business.
But that didn’t stop her from being a vocal activist for Native American rights throughout the rest of her life. She also worked with Greenpeace and served on the board of directors for the American Indian AIDS Institute of San Francisco.
Littlefeather’s niece confirmed that she died peacefully from breast cancer with her loved ones at her home in Marin County, California, on Sunday, October 2. The Academy’s apology in the final months of her life brought a sense of closure.
“It feels like the sacred circle is completing itself before I go in this life,” Littlefeather told the Academy. “It feels like a big cleanse, if you will, of mind, body, and spirit, and of heart. It feels that the truth will be known. And it feels like the creator is being good to me.”