Sacheen Littlefeather, the Apache civil rights activist and actress who rejected Marlon Brando’s Best Actor award on his behalf at the 45th Academy Awards in 1973, has died at the age of 75. Her death was announced Sunday (Oct. 2) by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. According to a statement from her family, Littlefeather died peacefully at her home in Marin Country, California.
Littlefeather’s death comes just weeks after the Academy issued a formal apology to the activist for her treatment during the 1973 Oscars incident. In what’s been described as one the best-known disruptive moments in TV history, Littlefeather–who was also the first-ever Native American woman to stand onstage at the ceremony–refused to accept friend Marlon Brando’s Oscar on his behalf after Brando boycotted the Academy for Hollywood’s portrayal of Native Americans. Instead, Littlefeather gave a short but life-changing speech that highlighted the injustices that Native Americans faced in and outside the industry–a move that received an incredible amount of racist backlash.
“I beg at this time that I have not intruded upon this evening and that we will, in the future, our hearts and our understandings, will meet with love and generosity,” Littlefeather finished at the podium, among the chorus of boos and jeers that flooded the pavilion. “Thank you on behalf of Marlon Brando.”
Though Sacheen Littlefeather endured abuse and blacklisting as the result of her speech, it was a pivotal moment for the film industry. She had met Marlon Brando through director Francis Ford Coppola after landing a few roles in films such as “The Trial of Billy Jack”; according to Ford, Brando had an interest in “Indian affairs” and subsequently sought Littlefeather’s friendship. Though Littlefeather was blacklisted by several producers for a time, her friendship with Brando and controversial Oscars speech would, fortunately, earn her several more opportunities during the course of her acting and modeling career. That success would later allow her to focus more closely on her activism for the Native community.
Littlefeather involved herself in a number of Native American advocacy projects, such as those of Chicago’s American Indian Center. She played a role in changing school mascots that stereotypically depicted Natives and, in 1991, was credited with co-founding the American Indian Registry for Performing Arts. Littlefeather also served on the board of directors as a “community member-at-large” for the American Indian AIDS Institute of San Francisco–and those are just a few of the things she’s done. In all, her work for the Native community was invaluable. In 2019, she earned the Brando Award from the Red Nation Film Festival for her contributions to Native activism.
“When I am gone, always be reminded that whenever you stand for your truth, you will be keeping my voice and the voices of our nations and our people alive. I remain Sacheen Littlefeather.” –Sacheen Littlefeather.