Sacheen Littlefeather receives apology for mistreatment at 1973 Oscars – The Hollywood Reporter

The first time Sacheen Littlefeather met the Academy, in 1973, she was booed on stage at the Oscarsheckled fake dinghies and so-called “tomahawk chops” offstage and threatened with arrest and physical assault.

Almost half a century later, she will return to the Academy as guest of honor for an evening of reflection at the Museum, featuring something she never dared imagine: a formal apology. from Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

“I was stunned. I never thought I would live to see the day I would hear this, live this,” said Littlefeather (Apache/Yaqui/Arizona), now 75. The Hollywood Reporter to receive the statement from the Academy, which was first presented to him privately in June. “When I was on the podium in 1973, I was standing there alone.”

At the time, in an instantly historic moment in Oscars and live television history, 26-year-old Littlefeather took the stage at Marlon Brando’s request to turn down the Best Actor award (for his role in The Godfather) in his name. She had two promises to keep: not to touch the statuette (Brando’s instructions) and limit her comments to 60 seconds (an order from the show’s producer Howard Koch, who told Littlefeather minutes before the award show that he had a security to stop her if she exceeded the time).

“[Brando] Unfortunately, I cannot accept this very generous award,” Littlefeather said in her extemporaneous non-acceptance speech, knowing that she would not have time to read the eight typed pages of remarks prepared by the actor. “And the reasons for that are the treatment of American Indians today by the motion picture industry [the audience begins to boo] – excuse me – and on TV in movie reruns, and also with the recent events at Wounded Knee. (A month before the ceremony, the militant organization American Indian Movement had occupied the town of Wounded Knee, South Dakota, to protest the mistreatment of Native Americans, a stalemate which, at the time of the televised appearance of Littlefeather at the Oscars, fell under a US Department of Justice-imposed Media Blackout.)

Littlefeather’s 60-second plea for justice drew an immediate and lasting personal backlash. She says that backstage, John Wayne had to be stopped from storming the stage to physically attack her, while afterwards his identity and integrity were challenged (the rumors were so persistent that in 2012, Dennis Miller mocked Elizabeth Warren by calling her “as Indian as that stripper Brando sent for her Oscar”). Littlefeather, who had starred in a few movies before her infamous moment, says the feds threatened to shut down any talk shows or productions that put her on the air.

“The abuse you suffered because of this statement was unwarranted and unwarranted,” wrote then-Academy President David Rubin in the organization’s June 18 letter of apology. “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 present to you both our most sincere apologies and our sincere admiration.

The statement of apology will be read in full on September 17. Academy Museum event in honor of Littlefeather, who will participate in a conversation with producer Bird Runningwater (Cheyenne/Mescalero Apache/NM), co-chair of the Academy’s Native Alliance. It was Runningwater who first reached out to Littlefeather on behalf of the Academy, as part of the Museum’s ongoing efforts to revisit the organization’s past and determine its future through a broader, inclusive lens. “Bird called me – on the phone, of course. He tried to send smoke signals, but they couldn’t get through the door,” jokes Littlefeather. Academy inclusion, cultivated a relationship with the lifelong activist, paving the way for him to record an episode for the Academy Museum Podcast, released in juneas well as a visual history of the Academy Oral History Projectsto be published next month.

An Evening with Sacheen Littlefeather, which will be free to the public via online reservationswill also feature earthly recognition from Virginia Carmelo (Tongva/S. Calif.) and performances by singer and traditional singer Calina Lawrence (Suquamish/Wash.), the San Manuel Bird Singers (San Manuel/Calif.), Michael Bellanger (Ojibiway /Minn. and Kickapoo/Okla.) and the All Nation Singers and Dancers and Steve Bohay (Kiowa/Okla.) and the Sooner Nation Singers and Dancers, as well as remarks by Rubin and new president of the Janet Yang Academy, Academy CEO Bill Kramer and Assemblyman James Ramos (Serrano/Cahuilla/So. Calif.). Academy Museum Director and President Jacqueline Stewart and Earl Neconie (Kiowa/Okla.) will host the evening.

This will be Littlefeather’s first visit to the Museum, whose photograph is on display in its Oscars History Gallery. The Bay Area resident, who later studied nutrition and traditional medicine and worked at Mother Teresa’s AIDS hospice in San Francisco, never expected reconciliation with the organization that changed the trajectory of his life nearly half a century ago.

When Stewart went home in June to record the visual story, she gave Littlefeather two gifts. “I was thinking, it can’t be a pair of slippers. It’s too casual for the Academy,” Littlefeather recalled. Indeed: She received instead a photograph of his appearance on the walls of the Museum’s gallery (“Right next to Sidney Poitier when he won the best actor award for field lilyso I’m in good company here”) and Rubin’s framed letter.

As Stewart read the letter aloud, Littlefeather sat in puzzled but attentive silence as she listened to words she never thought she would hear. “You know, I never got up on stage in 1973 for any honour. I only stayed there because my ancestors were with me and I spoke the truth,” she said afterwards. , clearly still processing the apology but speaking with the same composure and candor she has demonstrated since the world first heard her voice. It was only three minutes later, after having reflected on and paid tribute to Native American filmmakers and artists who are advancing in Hollywood – like Runningwater, Rae, actor Wes Studi and Reservation dogs creator Sterlin Harjo – that emotions hit, and Sacheen Littlefeather began to cry, clutching the framed letter to her chest.

“Yes, there are apologies that are due. As my friends in the Aboriginal community have said, this is long overdue,” says Littlefeather, who lives with metastasized breast cancer. “I could have been dead by now. All my friends – [activists] Dennis Banks, Russell Means, John Trudell, [comedian] Charlie Hill – left.

Littlefeather’s husband, Charles Koshiway (Otoe/Sac&Fox), also died of blood cancer last November. They had been together for 32 years. “His spirit is always there with me, and I know what he wanted for me was always justice and reconciliation,” Littlefeather says, despite being asked what she thought of Koch and of the other Oscar party attendees standing there as she was harassed, she laughed heartily: “When they got to the other side, I’m sure my ancestors spoke to them on my behalf. And I’m sure Mr. Charles went there and had a conversation with them immediately. I’m sure his first target was John Wayne.

But for Littlefeather herself, she says she has stuck to a daily personal practice of “love, gratitude and forgiveness”. And she was encouraged by the very recent advances in Native American representation on screen and among Hollywood storytellers: “Finally, someone is breaking down the doors. And I’m so glad it’s happening – even if I don’t swear like they do on Reservation dogs.”

In her last words in 1973, Littlefeather said, “I beg at this time that…in the future our hearts and understandings will meet in love and generosity.”

It took 49 years, but those hopeful words finally became prescient.

Read the Academy’s full reconciliation statement to Sacheen Littlefeather below.

June 18, 2022

Dear Sacheen Littlefeather,

I write to you today a letter that took a long time to arrive 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 not to accept the Oscar on behalf of Marlon Brando, in recognition of the film industry’s misrepresentation and mistreatment of Native Americans, you made a powerful statement. which continues to remind us of the need for respect and the importance of human dignity.

The abuse you suffered because of this statement was unwarranted and unwarranted. 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.

We cannot achieve the Academy’s mission to “inspire the imagination and connect the world through film” without a commitment to facilitating the broadest representation and inclusion that reflects our diverse global population.

Today, nearly 50 years later, and under the leadership of the Academy’s Indigenous Alliance, we stand firm in our commitment to ensuring Indigenous voices – the original storytellers – are visible and respected contributors. of the global film community. We are committed to fostering a more inclusive and respectful industry that relies on a balance between art and activism to drive progress.

We hope you receive this letter in a spirit of reconciliation and as recognition of your essential role in our journey as an organization. You are forever respectfully anchored in our history.

Sincerely, David Rubin
President, Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences

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