Academy Awards apologizes to Sacheen Littlefeather for 1973 Oscars abuse

The activist was met with boos when she appeared on behalf of Marlon Brando to reject his award for best actor owing to the ‘poor treatment of Native Americans in the film industry’

Sacheen Littlefeather during her speech at the 1973 Oscars.
Sacheen Littlefeather during her speech at the 1973 Oscars.Bettmann (Bettmann Archive)

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (Ampas), the body that oversees the Oscars, has apologized to Sacheen Littlefeather for the abuse she suffered at the 1973 Academy Awards. The Native American actress appeared at the ceremony on the request of actor Marlon Brando, who was awarded Best Actor for his role in The Godfather. When Brando’s name was announced, Littlefeather, who was 26 years old at the time, took to the stage to say that owing to the “poor treatment of Native Americans in the film industry,” as well as the recent events at Wounded Knee, a conflict which led to the death of two Native Americans, Brando would not accept the award.

Her speech was met with boos (and some applause) from the audience, and the actress had to be escorted by security guards. According to Littlefeather, that night some people used the “Tomahawk chop” – seen as a demeaning gesture to Native Americans – as she was walking by. Her Indian heritage was questioned, and she was accused of being in a relationship with Brando. Decades later, in 2020, Littlefeather said that actor John Wayne nearly assaulted her.

Nearly 50 years after the ceremony, the Academy has issued a formal apology for what happened. “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,” reads the letter signed by its former president, David Rubin.

Sacheen Littlefeather during an event in 2010.
Sacheen Littlefeather during an event in 2010.VALERIE MACON (AFP)

Littlefeather, who is now 75, has responded with humor to the Academy’s apology. “We Indians are very patient people - it’s only been 50 years!” she said in an interview with The Hollywood Reporter. “I never thought I’d live to see the day I would be hearing this.”

The Academy Museum of Motion Pictures will also host a special event on September 17, in which Littlefeather will discuss her appearance at the 1973 Oscars and the representation of Native Americans on screen.

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