Sacheen Littlefeather, Activist Who Rejected Brando’s Oscar, Dies at 75

Sacheen Littlefeather, the Apache activist and actress who refused to accept the best actor award on behalf of Marlon Brando at the 1973 Oscars Award, drawing jeers onstage in an act that pierced through the facade of the awards show and highlighted her criticism of Hollywood for its depictions of Native Americans, has died. She was 75. Her death was announced on Sunday by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. The cause of death was not immediately known.

Her death came just weeks after the Academy apologized to Ms. Littlefeather for her treatment during the Oscars. In an interview with The Hollywood Reporter in August, Ms. Littlefeather said she was “stunned” by the apology. “I never thought I’d live to see the day I would be hearing this, experiencing this,” she said.

When Ms. Littlefeather, then 26, held up her right hand that night inside the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in Los Angeles — clearly signaling to the award presenters, the audience and the millions watching on TV that she had no desire to ceremoniously accept the shiny golden statue — it marked one of the best-known disruptive moments in the history of the Oscars.

“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,” Ms. Littlefeather said at the podium, having endured a chorus of boos and some cheers from the crowd.

Donning a glimmering buckskin dress, moccasins and hair ties, her appearance at the 45th Academy Awards, at the age of 26, was the first time a Native American woman had stood onstage at the ceremony. But the backlash and criticism was immediate: The actor John Wayne was so unsettled that a show producer, Marty Pasetta, said security guards had to restrain him so that he would not storm the stage.

Ms. Littlefeather and Mr. Brando had become friends through her neighbor, the director Francis Ford Coppola.Associated Press

She told The Hollywood Reporter in August: “When I was at the podium in 1973, I stood there alone.”

Ms. Littlefeather, whose name at birth was Marie Cruz, was born on Nov. 14, 1946, in Salinas, Calif., to a father from the White Mountain Apache and Yaqui tribes in Arizona and a French-German-Dutch mother, according to her website. After high school, she took the name Sacheen Littlefeather to “reflect her natural heritage,” the site states.

Her website said she participated in the Native American occupation of Alcatraz Island, which began in 1969 in an act of defiance against a government that they said had long trampled on their rights.

Her acting career began at the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco in the early 1970s. She would go on to play roles in films like “The Trial of Billy Jack” and “Winterhawk.”

Ms. Littlefeather said in an interview with the Academy that she had been planning to watch the awards on television when she received a call the night before the ceremony from Mr. Brando, who had been nominated for his performance as Vito Corleone in “The Godfather.”

The two had become friends through her neighbor, the director Francis Ford Coppola. Mr. Brando asked her to refuse the award on his behalf if he won and gave her a speech to read just in case.

With only about 15 minutes left in the program, Ms. Littlefeather arrived at the ceremony with little information about how the night would work.

A producer for the Oscars noticed the pages in Ms. Littlefeather’s hand and told her that she would be arrested if her comments lasted more than 60 seconds.

Then, Mr. Brando won.

In the speech, Ms. Littlefeather also brought attention to the federal government’s standoff with Native Americans at Wounded Knee.

She later recalled that while she was giving the speech, she had “focused in on the mouths and the jaws that were dropping open in the audience, and there were quite a few.”

The audience, she recalled, looked like a “sea of Clorox” because there were “very few people of color.”

She said some audience members did the so-called “tomahawk chop” at her and that when she went to Mr. Brando’s house later, people shot at the doorway where she was standing.

Last month, Ms. Littlefeather spoke at a program hosted by the Academy called “An Evening with Sacheen Littlefeather,” recalling how she had stood up for justice in the arts.

“I didn’t represent myself,” she said. “I was representing all Indigenous voices out there, all Indigenous people, because we had never been heard in that way before.”

And when she spoke those words, the audience erupted in applause.

“I had to pay the price of admission, and that was OK,” she said. “Because those doors had to be open.”

After learning that the Academy would formally apologize to her, Ms. Littlefeather said it felt “like a big cleanse.”

“It feels like the sacred circle is completing itself,” she said, “before I go in this life.”