Sacheen Littlefeather

Marie Louise Cruz (born November 14, 1946), known as Sacheen Littlefeather, is an Apache actress and activist for Native American rights. On March 27, 1973, she represented Marlon Brando at the 45th Academy Awards to decline the Best Actor award for his performance in The Godfather. The favorite to win, Brando boycotted the ceremony in protest of Hollywood's portrayal of Native Americans and to draw attention to the standoff at Wounded Knee. During her speech, the audience was divided between jeers and applause.

Sacheen Littlefeather
Marie Louise Cruz

(1946-11-14) November 14, 1946 (age 73)
  • Actress
  • model
  • activist

Half-Native American (both White Mountain Apache and Yaqui) and half-white, Littlefeather had sought to become an actress. She was involved in the 1969 occupation of Alcatraz and learned about her heritage. After the Academy Award speech, she worked in hospice care, continued activism for a number of health-related and Native American issues, and produced films about Native Americans.

Early life and careerEdit

Sacheen Cruz Littlefeather was born Marie Louise Cruz on November 14, 1946, in Salinas, California.[1][2] Her mother was a leather stamper from Phoenix, Arizona, of French, German, and Dutch descent.[2][3] Her mother and two sisters were subject to their father’s rage & beatings.[4] Her father was born in the desert and is from the White Mountain Apache and Yaqui tribes.[2][3] The couple moved to California while her mother was pregnant.[2] They opened up their own business. "Cruz Saddlery" and her parents are also remembered in Salinas Valley.[citation needed] She was primarily raised by her maternal grandparents, Marie and Barney, and was Catholic as a child.[citation needed] Sometimes she lived with her mother; she recalls a trip through Mississippi when she was told to use the "black" water fountains and a sign that read, "No Dogs or Indians Allowed".[2]

While she attended California State College at Hayward (now California State University, East Bay), she continued to look into her Native American identity.[citation needed] In Oakland, she worked with the Intertribal Friendship House.[3] In 1969, she became a member of Indians of All Tribes and participated in the occupation of Alcatraz, when she adopted the name Sacheen Littlefeather.[1] She learned more about Native American customs from elders and other protesters.[2]

On a full scholarship to the American Conservatory Theater, she began acting education.[2] Aspiring to become an actress, Littlefeather picked up several radio and television commercial credits and joined the Screen Actors Guild.[1][2] In 1970, she was named Miss Vampire USA, a promotion for Dark Shadows.[5]

Playboy magazine planned a spread called "10 Little Indians" in 1972, and one of the models was Littlefeather, but Playboy editors cancelled its publication due to the Wounded Knee incident.[3] A year later in October 1973, after her Academy Award appearance fame, they ran the photographs of Littlefeather as a stand-alone feature.[2][6] Littlefeather was personally criticized for what was seen as exploitation of her fame.[7] Looking back at the photo shoot, Littlefeather later said, "I was young and dumb."[3]

Academy Awards speech, 1973Edit

Marlon Brando at the March on Washington, 1963


Littlefeather got in contact with actor Marlon Brando through her neighbor, director Francis Ford Coppola.[8] She wrote Brando a letter, asking about his interest in Native American issues, and he called the radio station where she worked a year later.[9] Brando had worked as an activist with the American Indian Movement (AIM) since the 1960s and into the 1970s.[10] In Washington, D.C., where Littlefeather was presenting to the Federal Communications Commission about minorities, they met and found in common their involvement with AIM.[2]

In 1972, Brando played Vito Corleone in The Godfather, which is considered one of the greatest films of all time.[11] For the performance, he was nominated for Best Actor for the role at the 45th Academy Awards, which were presented on March 27, 1973, at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in Los Angeles, California.[12] But before the ceremony, Brando decided that – as the favorite to win[11] – he would boycott as a protest led by AIM against the ongoing siege at Wounded Knee and his views on how Native Americans were represented in American films.[8] He called Littlefeather and asked her to appear on his behalf. "I was a spokesperson, so to speak, for the stereotype of Native Americans in film and television," she later said.[2]

At the ceremonyEdit

External video
  Marlon Brando's Oscar win for The Godfather on YouTube

Littlefeather joined the audience minutes before the award for Best Actor was announced. She was accompanied by Brando's secretary, Alice Marchak, and wore an Apache buckskin dress.[13] Producer Howard W. Koch, she would later say, told her that she had 60 seconds to deliver the speech or else be removed from the stage;[14][15] she had planned to read a 4-page speech written by Brando.[16]

The Best Actor award was presented by actors Liv Ullmann and Roger Moore. After giving brief remarks and announcing the five nominees, they declared Brando to be the winner. Littlefeather walked on stage and raised her hand to decline the Oscar trophy that Moore offered her. Deviating from the prepared speech, she said the following:[17]

Hello. My name is Sacheen Littlefeather. I'm Apache and I am president of the National Native American Affirmative Image Committee. I'm representing Marlon Brando this evening, and he has asked me to tell you in a very long speech which I cannot share with you presently, because of time, but I will be glad to share with the press afterwards, that he very regretfully cannot accept this very generous award. And the reasons for this being are the treatment of American Indians today by the film industry – excuse me [boos and cheers] – and on television in movie re-runs, and also with recent happenings at Wounded Knee. 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. Thank you on behalf of Marlon Brando. [applause][17]

Moore escorted Littlefeather off-stage, past several people critical of her, and to the press.[18] At the press conference, Littlefeather read to journalists the speech that Brando had prepared; The New York Times published the full text the next day.[3]

Later that night, before she announced the Best Actress winner, Raquel Welch said, "I hope the winner doesn't have a cause."[19] When Clint Eastwood presented the Best Picture award, he remarked that he was presenting it "on behalf of all the cowboys shot in John Ford westerns over the years."[19] Michael Caine, the night's co-host, criticized Brando for "Letting some poor little Indian girl take the boos" instead of "[standing] up and [doing] it himself".[19]

Reception and legacyEdit

The audience in the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion was divided between applause and jeers.[20] Brando and Littlefeather's protest was generally considered inappropriate for the awards ceremony.[7] "I was distressed that people should have booed and whistled and stomped, even though perhaps it was directed at myself," Brando later told Dick Cavett. "They should have at least had the courtesy to listen to her."[20] Her appearance prompted the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to rule out future proxy acceptance of Academy Awards.[21]

Littlefeather claims that she was blacklisted by the Hollywood community and received threats.[15] In addition, she says, media reports published several falsehoods, such as that she was not Native American or had rented the outfit for the occasion.[3] She has said that the federal government encouraged the blacklisting in order to abate Native American activism after Wounded Knee.[22]

The speech was credited with bringing attention back to the Wounded Knee standoff, on which a media blackout had been imposed.[15] Coretta Scott King called Littlefeather to thank her for the speech.[8] In 2014, the 87th ceremony of the Academy Awards drew criticism for lack of diversity in nominations; actress Jada Pinkett Smith, who boycotted the ceremony, cited Littlefeather as inspiration to do so.[23]

Later life and careerEdit

After giving the speech, Littlefeather spent two days in Los Angeles before returning to San Francisco.[24] When she visited Marlon Brando's house after the Academy Awards, while they were talking, bullets were fired into his front door.[25] At age 29 her lungs collapsed, and after recovering, she received a degree in health and a minor in Native American medicine, a practice she had used to recover. Studying nutrition, she lived in Stockholm for some time and then traveled around Europe, interested in the food of other cultures. Later, she taught at St. Mary's Hospital in Tucson, Arizona, and worked with the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe.[2]

In 1979, she co-founded the National American Indian Performing Arts Registry, which later helped several actors join the production of Dances with Wolves.[26] She shared an Emmy Award as an advisor to PBS's Dance in America: Song for Dead Warriors (1984). She also worked on the PBS shows Remember Me Forever and The Americas Before Columbus (both 1992), and she has produced films on Native American health.[2] In 2009, she gave testimony in the documentary Reel Injun about Native Americans in film.[27]

She continued doing activism and became a respected member of California's Native American community.[3] In the 1980s, she led prayer circles for Kateri Tekakwitha, the first Native American Catholic saint.[20] In 1988, she worked with Mother Teresa helping AIDS patients in hospice care, later founding the American Indian AIDS Institute of San Francisco.[3] She campaigned against obesity, alcoholism, and diabetes, and specifically assisted Native Americans with AIDS, including her brother.[28]

In 2015, Littlefeather reported that unauthorized persons were using her name and image to raise money for what was ostensibly a fundraiser for the Lakota nation. However, the money was never donated to any campaign.[29]

In March 2018, a spokesperson announced that Littlefeather had developed stage 4 breast cancer.[30] As of April 2018, Littlefeather resides in Northern California.[31]


List of film appearances
Year Title Role Notes Ref.
1973 Counselor at Crime Maggie Cameo appearace [32]
1973 The Laughing Policeman Minor role Uncredited [33]
1974 Freebie and the Bean Minor role Uncredited [33]
1974 The Trial of Billy Jack Patsy Littlejohn [34]
1975 Johnny Firecloud Nenya [35]
1975 Winterhawk Pale Flower [36]
1978 Shoot the Sun Down Navajo Woman [37]
2009 Reel Injun Herself Documentary [27]
2018 Sacheen Herself Short documentary [30]


  1. ^ a b c Olson, James Stuart (1990). Historical Dictionary of the 1970s. Greenwood Publishing Group. p. 232. ISBN 978-0-313-30543-6.
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m Snell, Lisa (October 26, 2010). "What would Sacheen Littlefeather say?". Native American Times. Retrieved April 7, 2018.
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h i Gilio-Whitaker, Dina (November 24, 2012). "A Recent TV Slur Revives Debate About Sacheen Littlefeather and Her Role in Marlon Brando's Oscar Refusal". Indian Country Today. Retrieved April 7, 2018.
  4. ^ Manso 1994, p. 772.
  5. ^ Aleiss, Angela (2005). Making the White Man's Indian: Native Americans and Hollywood Movies. Greenwood Publishing Group. p. 193. ISBN 978-0-275-98396-3.
  6. ^ "It's Oscar Time—Do You Know Where Sacheen Littlefeather Is?". People. March 26, 1990. Retrieved April 7, 2018.
  7. ^ a b Sonneborn, Liz (2014). Chronology of American Indian History. Infobase Publishing. p. 322. ISBN 978-1-4381-0984-8.
  8. ^ a b c Malone, Alicia (2017). Backwards and in Heels: The Past, Present And Future Of Women Working In Film. Mango Media. p. 82. ISBN 978-1-63353-618-0.
  9. ^ Taylor, Kate (February 25, 2016). "Sacheen Littlefeather, Marlon Brando's one-time Oscars accomplice, on how Hollywood has changed". The Globe and Mail. Retrieved April 7, 2018.
  10. ^ Johansen 2013, p. 60.
  11. ^ a b Robinson, Melia (February 27, 2014). "The unbelievable story of Why Marlon Brando rejected his 1973 Oscar for 'The Godfather'". Business Insider. Retrieved April 7, 2018.
  12. ^ "The 45th Academy Awards | 1973". Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Retrieved April 7, 2018.
  13. ^ Thomson, David (2003). Marlon Brando. Dorling Kindersley. p. this one. ISBN 978-0-7894-9317-0.
  14. ^ Brown & Pinkston 1988, p. 141.
  15. ^ a b c "43 years later, Native American activist Sacheen Littlefeather reflects on rejecting Marlon Brando's Oscar". Women in the World. February 27, 2016. Retrieved April 7, 2018.
  16. ^ Longworth, Karina (September 30, 2014). "YMRT #16 Marlon Brando, 1971-1973". You Must Remember This. Retrieved October 14, 2019.
  17. ^ a b Oscars (October 2, 2008). "Marlon Brando's Oscar® win for "The Godfather"". YouTube. Retrieved April 8, 2018.
  18. ^ Guttman, Dick (May 24, 2017). "How Roger Moore Assisted Sacheen Littlefeather In Her Blind Date With History". HuffPost. Retrieved April 8, 2018.
  19. ^ a b c Johansen 2013, p. 62.
  20. ^ a b c Rottenberg, Josh (January 19, 2013). "Catching up with Sacheen Littlefeather, 40 years after her controversial brush with Oscar history". Entertainment Weekly. Retrieved April 7, 2018.
  21. ^ "Oscar Watch; Oscar takes a bow for legacy of controversy", Stephen Schaefer, Boston Herald, March 16, 2003
  22. ^ "Sacheen Littlefeather recounts blacklisting, assassination attempts". The Christian Science Monitor. August 9, 2010. Retrieved April 7, 2018.
  23. ^ Thomas, Dexter (February 5, 2016). "Meet the woman who refused Marlon Brando's Oscar and inspired Jada Pinkett Smith's boycott". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved April 7, 2018.
  24. ^ "Indian Terms Words Hers, Not Brando's". The New York Times. April 1, 1973. Retrieved April 7, 2018.
  25. ^ Walker, Dave (August 26, 2010). "Yoko Ono, Sacheen Littlefeather deliver Summer TV Tour into the past". The Times-Picayune. Retrieved April 7, 2018.
  26. ^ Strauss, Bob (April 7, 1991). "Native Daughter: Sacheen Littlefeather Helped Turn Things Around". Los Angeles Daily News. Retrieved April 8, 2018.
  27. ^ a b "Reel Injun: On the Trail of the Hollywood Indian". PBS. November 2, 2010. Retrieved April 8, 2018.
  28. ^ Johansen 2013, p. 178.
  29. ^ "Sacheen Littlefeather-Declaration to SD Attorney General's Office". Lakota Woman's Voice. March 27, 2015.
  30. ^ a b Fuster, Jeremy (March 5, 2018). "Sacheen Littlefeather, Who Rejected Oscar for Marlon Brando, Has Stage 4 Cancer". TheWrap. Retrieved April 7, 2018.
  31. ^ "Sacheen Cruz Littlefeather". Sacheen Littlefeather. Retrieved April 7, 2018.
  32. ^ Curti, Roberto (2013). Italian Crime Filmography, 1968–1980. McFarland & Company. pp. 79–80. ISBN 978-0-7864-6976-5.
  33. ^ a b Da Silva, George Batista (2008). Do Vitascope Ao Imax (in Portuguese). Clube de Autores. p. 281.
  34. ^ Can, Vincent (November 14, 1974). "Screen: 'Trial of Billy Jack,' a Sequel". The New York Times. Retrieved April 8, 2018.
  35. ^ Fisher, Austin; Walker, Johnny (2016). Grindhouse: Cultural Exchange on 42nd Street, and Beyond. Bloomsbury Publishing. p. 209. ISBN 978-1-62892-749-8.
  36. ^ Hilger, Michael (1986). The American Indian in Film. Scarecrow Press. p. 155. ISBN 978-0-8108-1905-4.
  37. ^ Pitts, Michael R. (2013). Western Movies: A Guide to 5,105 Feature Films. McFarland & Company. p. 310. ISBN 978-1-4766-0090-1.

Works cited and further readingEdit

External linksEdit