Photo of barrage balloon from America from the Great Depression to World War II, at the Library of Congress.
Today in Odd History
Sacheen Littlefeather Refuses Brando's Oscar (March 27, 1973)
Today in Odd History, a young woman in beaded doeskin took the stage at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, in Los Angeles, California, to decline Marlon Brando's Best Actor Oscar for The Godfather. Her name, she said, was Sacheen Littlefeather, and she had a message from Marlon Brando.
"Marlon Brando ... has asked me to tell you, in a very long speech which I cannot share with you presentlybecause of timebut I will be glad to share with the press afterward, that he must... very regretfully cannot accept this very generous award. And the reason for this being... are the treatment of American Indians today by the film industry excuse me and on television in movie re-runs, and also the 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 understanding will meet with love and generosity. Thank you on behalf of Marlon Brando."
A few people applauded, but many more jeered. Some who saw the broadcast remember that Littlefeather was "booed off the stage." The incident colored the rest of the evening, with Clint Eastwood wondering whether he should present the award for Best Picture "on behalf of all the cowboys shot in John Ford westerns over the years," Raquel Welch saying, "I hope the winner doesn't have a cause," before announcing the winner of the Best Actress Oscar, and cohost Michael Caine criticizing Brando for "letting some poor little Indian girl take the boos," instead of "[standing] up and [doing] it himself."
After the ceremony, Littlefeather shared the full text of Brando's 15-page statement with the press. She had been forced to condense it dramatically after the producer threatened to have her removed from the stage if she spoke for more than 45 seconds. It said that the actor did not wish to "offend or diminish this occasion, but I do not feel that I can, as a citizen of the United States, accept this or any award. You are probably saying: 'What the hell does this have to do with the Academy Awards?' The answer is that the motion picture community as much as anyone has been responsible for degrading the Indian."
Hollywood was momentarily stunned, but almost immediately went on the offensive. Littlefeather was trivialized as a "gentle-voiced Apache maiden ... in shining braids, explaining as best she could why the most honored actor of the year was letting the chalice pass." Brando was accused of manipulating the press by, as John Wayne put it, "taking some little unknown girl and dressing her up in an Indian outfit." And then the media discovered that Littlefeather was an actress, whose birth name was Maria Cruz, and who had been Miss American Vampire in 1970. She was immediately labeled a "faux Apache," and is now largely remembered as an embarrasing footnote to the otherwise glorious tale of Oscar.
The truth about Sacheen Littlefeather is more complex, though. While Hollywood might have questioned her qualifications, she is, in fact, Native American: part Apache, part Yaqui, part Pueblo and part Caucasian. "Littlefeather" is a name she used professionally, and still uses today. Her brief notoriety did result in a few film roles, and an appearance in Playboy, but her career did not last long. She has never given up her activism (indeed, she credits her mention of Wounded Knee with bringing her to the attention of the FBI, who she believes ended her film career). She promotes a number of Native American causes, encouraging Native Americans to work in Hollywood, fighting to combat alcoholism, obesity and diabetes among Native Americans, and caring for Native Americans with AIDS, her brother among them. She is also the coordinator of the Kateri Circle of the Archdiocese of San Francisco, which blends Native American spirituality with Catholic ritual, in honor of Kateri Tekakwitha, a 17th century Algonquin maiden beatified by Pope John Paul II.
Brando is uncomfortable talking about Sacheen Littlefeather, but she remembers him with some fondness. "He helped me to become an infamous person," she says. "It definitely put me on the map."
Native American stereotypes in film:
The Oscars in Depth:
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