How a letter to Brando led to Sacheen Littlefeather's famous Oscar moment

·7 min read
Sacheen Littlefeather, seen March 27, 1973 after telling the Oscar audience that Marlon Brando was declining to accept his Oscar to protest Hollywood's treatment of Indigenous people. (The Associated Press - image credit)
Sacheen Littlefeather, seen March 27, 1973 after telling the Oscar audience that Marlon Brando was declining to accept his Oscar to protest Hollywood's treatment of Indigenous people. (The Associated Press - image credit)

It was one minute of Sacheen Littlefeather's life seen literally around the world. A minute that would have an untold impact on the young actor and activist's life.

And it almost didn't happen.

On March 27, 1973, the 26-year-old Apache/Yaqui woman walked onto the stage at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in Los Angeles, rejected the Oscar awarded to Marlon Brando for The Godfather, and then calmly explained to 85 million people that it was due to "the treatment of American Indians today by the film industry."

Her words drew both cheers and boos. Littlefeather says the speech was not only put together at the very last moment — she very nearly didn't deliver it at all.

"We got there about, oh, about 20 minutes before that program was due to end," Littlefeather told Unreserved host Rosanna Deerchild about the fateful Oscars show.

What's more, it wasn't even the speech Brando wanted Littlefeather to read.

WATCH | The Oscar speech seen around the world: 

Meeting Brando

The two had struck up a friendship about a year earlier, forged out of his interest in Indigenous rights. Littlefeather was working for a local San Francisco radio station at the time and was head of the Affirmative Action Committee for the city's branch of the Screen Actors Guild. They had a mutual friend — her neighbour, Francis Ford Coppola — and she convinced him to give her Brando's address.

She wrote to him, asking "if he was really sincerely interested in Native American Indian people and causes," or if it was "because he was going to play the role of an Indian in a film."

She offered her views on how Indigenous people were stereotyped in television and film, and essentially said, give me a call if you want to talk more about it.

A year went by.

"You would think at that point that the person would give up. But somehow I knew," she said.

Paramount Pictures via The Associated Press
Paramount Pictures via The Associated Press

"There was a little spark inside that said no, I'll hear from him one of these days. Well, one of these days happened."

She got the call at work.

"I picked up the phone and this voice came on," Littlefeather recounted. "And the voice said, 'I bet you don't know who this is.' And I said, 'Sure, I do.' He said, 'Well, who is it?' And I said, 'This is Marlon Brando.'"

She was right, and says she told him, 'It sure as hell took you a long time to call! You beat Indian time all to hell!'" 

Oscars would be 'big' but possibly 'bad'

Littlefeather said they laughed like old friends and spoke for an hour, and then kept right on talking regularly in the ensuing weeks and months.

"It wasn't about film and it wasn't about the industry per se. It was just about our interests together in the Native American stereotype."

At the time, she was preparing reports for the U.S. Federal Communications Commission about Indigenous people on screen — how children "were being miseducated about who we really are."

As she continued her work over the next year, the two continued their conversations.

"I never talked to anybody about the fact that I was talking to Marlon Brando. I kept that pretty well hidden," she said.

And then came that fateful Oscars weekend. He called her on the Saturday and asked her to represent him at the ceremony.

"And I told him, 'when is it?'" she laughed. "It seemed like a reasonable question to me."

The ceremony, held on a Tuesday that year, was only three days later. Brando told her it would be big, but that it could also be bad for her.

"I said if it was going to help Native American Indian people, yes, I would do anything."

Submitted by Sacheen Littlefeather
Submitted by Sacheen Littlefeather

Avoiding arrest

But there was the question not just of what she would say, but what she would wear. She told him she had some Levi's and a top — or a traditional buckskin dress. That was it.

"So in a way, you can say that he chose my outfit."

As for the speech, Littlefeather says Brando gave her about eight pages, hurriedly typed by his secretary a mere hour before the Oscars telecast was to end.

"The only chance I had to read it was by flashlight in the car."

Brando had given Littlefeather and his secretary his two tickets for the ceremony; his nephew — dressed in tee shirt and shorts — drove them to the venue.

Security was a bit skeptical.

They explained who they were, showed them the tickets — but the guards called in the show producer, Howard Koch.

He confirmed Brando had been a no-show and agreed to let them in — even to let Littlefeather speak if Brando won. But he took one look at the eight pages in her hand and said, no way.

"He said, 'I will give you 60 seconds or less." If she went over, she says he told her, he'd have her arrested, handcuffed and put in jail.

"And he pointed to the police officers there who would do exactly that."

Submitted by Sacheen Littlefeather
Submitted by Sacheen Littlefeather

Which is why what Littlefeather wound up saying was unscripted — something few people ever knew.

She heard the boos and "a kerfuffle" from offstage as an enraged John Wayne tried to stop her. "He had to be restrained by six security men," Littlefeather said about the incident, which was remembered similarly years later by the show's director, Marty Pasetta.

WATCH | An apology to Saceen Littlefeather, 50 years later: 

Brando himself would later tell talk show host Dick Cavett that he was "distressed" that she had been booed, though he believed anger was directed at him.

"I was very glad that she did have what opportunity she had to say what she did," he said.

"I don't think that people generally realize what the motion picture industry has done to the American Indian … Indian children seeing Indians represented as savage, as ugly, as nasty, vicious, treacherous, drunken. They grow up only with a negative image of themselves and it lasts a lifetime."

WATCH | Brando says the Oscar audience just didn't want Littlefeather to be there: 

Littlefeather had also mentioned the occupation of Wounded Knee, the American Indian Movement's stand-off with U.S. officials in South Dakota that was going on at the time. Elders from the Oglala Sioux tribe, who were unhappy with the local tribal government, had occupied the village that was the site of the 1890 Wounded Knee massacre. Members of the American Indian Movement came in to support and draw attention to the mistreatment of Indigenous peoples by federal and local governments.The FBI and U.S. marshals surrounded them for what would become a 71-day standoff.

Littlefeather says she was rejected by the Hollywood establishment after her Oscars speech, but had no regrets.

"I was not pushed out. I was pushed in," she said, explaining that while her acting life might have ended, she was able to move on to even more meaningful work.

"I knew that if you speak the truth, the truth will last beyond the time of eternity," she said. "I was willing to do this because I knew that my ancestors would be behind me and before me and surrounding me."

Meeting Mother Teresa

She forged another meaningful friendship some years later.

After going on to work in Native American health care, she became one of the founding members of the American Indian AIDS Institute in San Francisco in the 1980s.

"We knew that our people were dying from AIDS," she said, and that people like her were the only ones who were going to help them.

And so she asked Mother Teresa, who was already helping to house and treat AIDS patients in the city, to teach her how.

Littlefeather became her student, went to mass with her, and marvelled at the amount of positive energy in her small, gnarled body.

"She used to make me belly laugh all of the time," she said.

Submitted by Sacheen Littlefeather
Submitted by Sacheen Littlefeather

Littlefeather is still a healer today at age 75, and on Sept. 17, nearly 50 years after that Oscar moment, she will be recognized by the Academy Museum with an entire evening's worth of celebration and a reading of the formal apology she received last month.

"And the response that I'm going to give is on behalf of Native people. Not just myself," Littlefeather said.

"Because we've been owed this apology for many, many years, and that's the premise on which I'm accepting."

Interview produced by Kim Kaschor.