History was made in 1973 when Marlon Brando declined to accept the best actor Oscar for his role in The Godfather to protest the treatment of American Indians. His demurral, which was delivered on stage by a young Native American activist named Sacheen Littlefeather, generated intense controversy and criticism throughout the country. Almost 40 years later, some in Hollywood still seem to hold a grudge.
The subject came up on the August 27 airing of NBC’s Tonight Show while host Jay Leno was talking to comic and FOX-friendly pundit Dennis Miller. The conversation turned to Massachusetts senatorial candidate Elizabeth Warren:
Miller: Elizabeth Warren? Is that the chick that says she’s an Indian?
Leno [chuckling]: Well, yeah, no.
Miller: She’s about as much Indian as that stripper chick Brando sent to pick up his Oscar for The Godfather, all right?
Leno: Check that reference! Hang on, you mean Shawsheen [sic] Littlefeather?
Miller [audience laughter]: Sacheen Littlefeather. Of course I remember!
Leno: 1971 was that? Oh my God!
Miller: You know, I sent the Warren campaign a donation today, but just to piss her off I sent it in beads.
Miller’s comments—and the laughing audience—are glaring reminders that ugly Native American stereotypes are still pervasive. A few weeks after Miller’s appearance with Leno, staffers for Senator Scott Brown, Warren’s opponent, were taped doing tomahawk chops and war whoops as they mocked her campaign. Racial slurs that deny a person’s Native American heritage are a peculiar type of racism, and all the better when the target is a woman, especially one as high profile as Elizabeth Warren or Sacheen Littlefeather.
Marlon Brando asked Littlefeather, then a budding actress, to attend the Academy Awards and refuse the Oscar for him to protest the way the film industry perpetuated harmful stereotypes of Native Americans, and to show his solidarity with American Indian activists who were at that moment engaged in an armed battle with the FBI at Wounded Knee. After his name was announced as the winner, Littlefeather mounted the stage dressed in full traditional regalia and gave a very brief speech explaining Brando’s reasons for declining the award. Brando had prepared a 15-page speech, but the show’s producer threatened to have Littlefeather arrested if she attempted to read all that and instead gave her only 60 seconds on stage, which meant that the short speech she delivered was improvised. Put on the spot without a script in front of millions of people and painfully shy to begin with, she introduced herself demurely as the president of the National Native American Affirmative Image Committee. She then explained that Brando could not accept the very generous award because of the treatment of American Indians by the film industry and on television and because of “recent happenings at Wounded Knee.”
After the show she read the full speech in a press conference and The New York Times published it in its entirety.
“John Wayne was backstage, and he became very upset at my speech, and it took four to six men to restrain him from coming to drag me off stage,” says Littlefeather.
Littlefeather says she was immediately blacklisted in Hollywood. She received death threats and was lied about in the media, with some reports claiming, for example, that her Native dress for the Oscars event was rented. (It was her Northern Traditional pow wow dance outfit.)
“I found out from friends in the industry that they had been visited by FBI agents right after the Academy Awards who had threatened to put them out of business if they hired me. In those days [the FBI] planted a lot of seeds in the media,” she says, referring to the FBI’s efforts to infiltrate many of the social movements of the day in divide and conquer tactics to discredit and destroy civil rights groups like the Black Panthers and the American Indian Movement.
The biggest lie told by the media was that she was not an Indian, a misconception that is still surprisingly persistent today, as demonstrated by the Leno-Miller exchange. Miller’s reference to her as a “stripper” was a further attempt to discredit her, a deliberate exaggeration that probably referenced a photo shoot she had done for Playboy the year before her appearance on the Academy Awards. “I am not a stripper,” she says. “People pay me to keep my clothes on! [laughing] I’m 65 years old and an elder now, going to the other side soon. I was young and dumb [when I did the photo shoot].… It was shot in 1972, with nine other Indian women whose names I won’t disclose to protect their privacy.”
The spread, which was to have been called “10 Little Indians,” was killed by Playboy editors because of the Wounded Knee confrontation. But a year later the magazine ran the shots of Littlefeather, who had by then rocketed to fame.
Sacheen Littlefeather was born Marie Cruz in Salinas, California. She was raised primarily by her mother’s Caucasian family, but her father was a full-blood Indian of mixed White Mountain Apache and Yaqui descent. In a 2010 interview for Native American Times, Littlefeather said she began exploring her Native identity in depth when she was in college at California State University at Hayward. She became involved in the Intertribal Friendship House in Oakland and from there joined the Alcatraz Island occupation where she connected with important Native American leaders like Wilma Mankiller, John Trudell and Anthony Garcia, and was mentored by Adam Fortunate Eagle and Don Patterson, tribal president of the Tonkawa Tribe of Oklahoma.
A longtime resident of the San Francisco Bay Area, Littlefeather is a highly respected member of the Native American community. She has served as head woman dancer at many pow wows and is known for her work in health-care education in the Native community. In the 1980s she worked with Mother Teresa ministering to AIDS patients in hospice care, leading to her becoming one of the founding board members of the American Indian AIDS Institute of San Francisco. In 1981 she worked for the Kiowa tribe in Oklahoma and wrote a health-related column in the tribal newspaper. She has helped produce numerous Native American films, even sharing an Emmy Award in 1984 for her contribution to PBS’s Dance in America: A Song for Dead Warriors, which featured a ballet based on the life of Richard Oakes, one of the Alcatraz occupation leaders. She is also a co-coordinator of the Kateri Prayer Circle of San Francisco.
Most recently, she appeared in the award-winning film Reel Injun, where she talked about her Academy Awards experience and Marlon Brando’s desire to publicize what he saw as unfair treatment of American Indians. In the film, Russell Means recalls being at Wounded Knee and watching the Academy Awards: “We don’t believe we’re going to get out of there alive and the morale is down low, and Marlon Brando and Sacheen Littlefeather totally uplifted our lives.”
The Leno-Miller segment about Littlefeather mostly escaped the notice of the media, but that’s partly because she deliberately delayed responding to it. She is surviving a battle with breast cancer just this year, having only recently been officially declared in remission. “Having cancer has been the fight of my life. Staring death in the face changes your life,” she says. “Late-night TV has stooped to racism and bigotry. [Miller and Leno] came off as bitter, old white farts. Would they have gotten away with it if they had referred to Oprah as Aunt Jemima?”
The cancer treatments have left her very weak and vulnerable to stress—she says the Leno-Miller conversation so disturbed her that it triggered an episode of internal bleeding which required medical attention. Since then she has written a letter of protest to Leno and has mounted a campaign demanding an apology. So far her letter has been met with silence, and The New York Times declined to publish a letter written by longtime friend Priscilla Burgess on Littlefeather’s behalf. High-profile feminist lawyer Gloria Allred refused to represent her and instead referred Littlefeather to a lawyer in Los Angeles who offered to represent her—for $150,000.