Sacheen Littlefeather, Native American Activist Who Declined Marlon Brando’s Oscar for ‘The Godfather,’ Dies at 75

The news was announced by The Academy on Sunday

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Sacheen Littlefeather, the Native American activist who declined Marlon Brando’s Oscar for “The Godfather” has died. She was 75.

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences confirmed the news via Twitter on Sunday.

Nearly 50 years ago, Littlefeather attended the Oscars in Brando’s place after the actor decided to boycott the ceremony out of protest for the portrayal of Native Americans in the entertainment industry. When Brando was named the winner of the Oscar for Best Actor for his performance in “The Godfather,” Littlefeather gave a speech on Brando’s behalf declining the honor with a mix of applause and jeers, with presenters Raquel Welch and Clint Eastwood making dismissive jokes about Brando and Littlefeather’s actions later that evening.

In August of this year, the Academy sent a letter of apology to Littlefeather, calling the treatment she received for her speech “unwarranted and unjustified.” 

“You made a powerful statement that continues to remind us of the necessity of respect and the importance of human dignity,” former Academy President David Rubin wrote in the letter.

“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,” Rubin continued. “For too long the courage you showed has been unacknowledged. For this, we offer both our deepest apologies and our sincere admiration.”

Just last month, Littlefeather took part in “An Evening with Sacheen Littlefeather,” at the Academy, a special program of conversation, reflection, healing, and celebration, with film/TV producer and former Sundance programmer Bird Runningwater. She also issued a statement about the apology and the event.

“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,” she said in her statement. “I never thought I’d live to see the day for this program to take place, featuring such wonderful Native performers and Bird Runningwater, a television and film producer who also guided the Sundance Institute’s commitment to Indigenous filmmakers for twenty years through the Institute’s Labs and Sundance Film Festival. 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. I am so proud of each and every person who will appear on stage.”

Born Marie Louise Cruz in Salinas, California, to an Apache/Yaqui father and a European American mother. She first became involved in the Native American community during the 1969, 19-month protest occupation of Alcatraz Island, at which time she adopted the name Sacheen Littlefeather.

As an aspiring actress, she booked radio and television commercials and joined Screen Actors Guild. She went on to work at a radio station KFRC in the San Francisco Bay area and was a freelance reporter for PBS member station KQED.

After the Academy Award appearance fame and subsequent backlash, Littlefeather became a spokesperson for the National American Indian Council and participated in the protest against President Richard Nixon’s budget cuts to federal Native American programs. She also joined members of several minority groups in a meeting with the FCC about the representation of minorities on television.

As a founding member of the Red Earth Indian Theater Company in Seattle, Washington, she was awarded an honorary Eagle Spirit Award at the 2013 American Indian Film Festival and later cofounded the American Indian Registry for Performing Arts.