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Academy Finally Apologizes to Sacheen Littlefeather for Racist Reaction to Her Oscar Speech

Oscars statuettes are on display

In 1973, Marlon Brando won the Oscar for Best Actor for his role as Don Corleone in The Godfather. When the award was announced, though, something extraordinary happened: Sacheen Littlefeather, an Apache actress and activist, went to the stage to speak in Brando’s place. Instead of accepting his award, Littlefeather spoke out for Native rights while the audience booed and made racist “tomahawk chop” gestures. The event was life-altering for Littlefeather, derailing her career as the film industry blacklisted her. Now, almost 50 years later, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has finally given Littlefeather a formal apology.

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Littlefeather, who was president of the National Native American Affirmative Image Committee at the time, preplanned her Oscar statement with Brando. Their goal was to call attention to the stereotyping of Native people in the film industry, and highlight the American Indian Movement’s seizure and occupation of the town of Wounded Knee in South Dakota. Although Brando gave Littlefeather an eight-page speech to read, she decided to give her own unplanned statement after she was told she’d be taken offstage by security if she went over 60 seconds.

You can watch Littlefeather’s full statement here:

In her statement, Littlefeather said that Brando was declining the award because of “the treatment of American Indians today by the film industry … and on television, in movie reruns, and also with recent happenings at Wounded Knee.” In the video, you can hear some members of the audience booing as Littlefeather tries to speak. Littlefeather ended her statement by expressing the hope that “in the future, our hearts and our understandings will meet with love and generosity.”

According to an interview with Littlefeather in an interview with Littlefeather in The Hollywood Reporter, Littlefeather was threatened with arrest for giving the statement, and actor John Wayne—who identified as a white supremacist in a 1971 Playboy Interview—reportedly tried to rush the stage to attack her. Littlefeather says that the federal government enforced the film industry’s boycott of her by threatening to shut down any productions that cast her. She was also subjected to widespread character defamation, with Dennis Miller calling her a “stripper chick” and accusing her of faking her identity on The Tonight Show in 2012.

Now, the Academy has released a statement saying that, in June, they gave Littlefeather a written apology for the audience’s conduct during her statement at the 1973 Oscars. The apology, published in full on the Academy’s website, states that “The abuse you [Littlefeather] 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.”

The Academy has also invited Littlefeather to speak as a guest of honor at the Academy Museum in Los Angeles on September 17. In her Hollywood Reporter interview, Littlefeather said of the apology, “I was stunned. I never thought I’d live to see the day I would be hearing this, experiencing this … Yes, there’s an apology that’s due. As my friends in the Native community said, it’s long overdue.”

(featured image: Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences)

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Julia Glassman (she/her) holds an MFA from the Iowa Writers' Workshop, and has been covering feminism and media since 2007. As a staff writer for The Mary Sue, Julia covers Marvel movies, folk horror, sci fi and fantasy, film and TV, comics, and all things witchy. Under the pen name Asa West, she's the author of the popular zine 'Five Principles of Green Witchcraft' (Gods & Radicals Press). You can check out more of her writing at https://juliaglassman.carrd.co/.