The Academy Finally Rights a 50-Year-Old Racist Wrong

Sacheen Littlefeather declined Marlon Brando's Oscar, at his request, got booed
By Evann Gastaldo,  Newser Staff
Posted Aug 16, 2022 1:00 AM CDT
Sacheen Littlefeather Finally Gets an Apology From the Academy
Sacheen Littlefeather appears at the Academy Awards ceremony to announce that Marlon Brando was declining his Oscar as best actor for his role in "The Godfather," on March 27, 1973.   (AP Photo, File)

In 1973, Sacheen Littlefeather walked onstage at the Academy Awards to decline the best actor Oscar on Marlon Brando's behalf. The actor had given the Native American activist and actress eight pages of typed notes to read, but the show's producer told her just before she went on that he'd have her arrested if she spoke a moment longer than her allotted 60 seconds. As the 26-year-old improvised, explaining Brando was rejecting the award for The Godfather to protest "the treatment of American Indians today by the film industry ... and on television in movie reruns, and also with recent happenings at Wounded Knee," she was booed and heckled, with some audience members carrying out such racist actions as "tomahawk chops" and "mock ululations," per the Hollywood Reporter. Nearly 50 years later, she is finally getting an apology.

The Academy in June invited her to be the guest of honor for an evening of reflection on Sept. 17, during which she will receive a formal mea culpa from the organization. "I was stunned. I never thought I’d live to see the day I would be hearing this, experiencing this," says Littlefeather, who, in the wake of the Oscars speech, received threats, saw her reputation harmed and integrity questioned, and her acting career shut down before it could really begin. "The abuse you endured because of this statement was unwarranted and unjustified," the apology letter, which will be read in full at the event, reads. “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."

Littlefeather was the first person to make a political statement at the Oscars, NBC News reports. She recently revealed that John Wayne charged at her in an effort to remove her from the stage, but he was held back by security, CNN reports. The Evening With Sacheen Littlefeather event at the Academy Museum in Los Angeles will feature a conversation between Littlefeather and Bird Runningwater, co-chair of the Academy's Indigenous Alliance, along with several performances by indigenous artists. "Regarding the Academy’s apology to me, we Indians are very patient people—it’s only been 50 years! We need to keep our sense of humor about this at all times. It’s our method of survival," Littlefeather says in a statement. "This is a dream come true. It is profoundly heartening to see how much has changed since I did not accept the Academy Award 50 years ago." (More Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences stories.)

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