Sacheen Littlefeather

Sacheen Littlefeather
Sacheen Littlefeather Oscar 45 (cropped).jpg
Littlefeather at the 45th Academy Awards in 1973, which she attended on behalf of Marlon Brando
Born
Marie Louise Cruz

(1946-11-14) November 14, 1946 (age 75)
Occupation
  • Actress
  • model
  • activist

Sacheen Cruz Littlefeather (born Marie Louise Cruz on November 14, 1946) is an American actress, model, and Native American civil rights activist. Littlefeather was born to a Native American (Apache and Yaqui) father[1] and a European American mother. During the 1969 occupation of Alcatraz, she became involved in the Native American activist community.

Littlefeather represented Marlon Brando at the 45th Academy Awards in 1973, where she—on Brando's behalf—declined the Best Actor award that he won for his performance in The Godfather. The favorite to win, Brando boycotted the ceremony as a protest against Hollywood's portrayal of Native Americans and to draw attention to the standoff at Wounded Knee. During her speech, the audience's response to Brando's boycotting was divided between booing and applause.

After the Academy Award speech, she went on to work in hospice care. She continues to work in activism for a number of health-related and Native American issues, and has produced films about Native Americans.

In June 2022, the Academy sent Littlefeather a statement of apology, to be read in full at An Evening with Sacheen Littlefeather on September 17.

Early life and work

Sacheen Littlefeather was born Marie Louise Cruz on November 14, 1946, in Salinas, California.[2][3] Her mother, Geroldine Marie Barnitz (1923–2009), was a leather stamper of French, German, and Dutch descent born and raised in Santa Barbara, California.[4][3][5] Her father Manuel Ybarra Cruz (1922–1966) was born in Oxnard, California[6] and was of White Mountain Apache and Yaqui descent.[3][5] Both Geroldine and Manuel were saddlemakers. Geroldine learned the craft from Leo Leonard, who owned Leonard Saddle Co in Santa Barbara, and Manuel learned to make saddles as a boy in San Francisco. By 1949, they had moved to Salinas and opened up their own business, "Cruz Saddlery".[7][6] Her mother continued to operate the business after her father's death in 1966.[4]

In interviews, Littlefeather has described a difficult childhood. In a 1974 interview, she stated that her mother left her father when she was 4 and took her to live with her maternal grandparents.[8] In 1988, she stated that her parents lived next door to her maternal grandparents, Marie and Gerold "Barney" Barnitz, while she and her two younger sisters lived with those grandparents.[9] She has characterized this as either being "adopted",[10] or in foster care.[11] During a 1976 television interview she described her father as abusive[12] and she has also stated that her mother and two sisters were subject to their father's rage and beatings.[13]

Littlefeather attended North Salinas High School from 1960-1964 and was active in 4-H, winning awards in home economics categories such as food preservation and fashion.[14][15][16] After high school, she attended Hartnell Junior College and studied elementary education.[17][18] In 1969, she moved to the San Francisco Bay Area to pursue a modeling career with a portfolio of photos taken by Kenneth Cook of Cook’s Photography.[19][20]

While she attended California State College at Hayward (now California State University, East Bay) and studied dramatics and speech, she continued to look into her Native American identity.[21][22] In 1969, she joined the United Bay Indian Council.[23] She participated in the occupation of Alcatraz in 1970, though as a student she was unable to live on the island full-time,[10] and adopted the name Sacheen Littlefeather.[2] She said she chose the name Sacheen because that's the name her father called her before he died, while Littlefeather came from the feather she always wore in her hair.[21] She learned more about Native American customs from elders and other protesters, like Adam Fortunate Eagle (then known as Adam Nordwall).[3] In an interview after her Academy Awards appearance, Fortunate Eagle confirmed that Littlefeather had supported the protest at Alcatraz.[24]

Aspiring to become an actress, Littlefeather picked up several radio and television commercial credits and joined the Screen Actors Guild.[2][3] She would later say that she "learned early in life that there was probably a place for me in the dramatic art field, acting . . . if you have a parent who's deaf, you naturally have to act out messages to them," referring to communicating with her father.[23] In 1970, as "Sacheen Littlefeather of Alcatraz," she was named Miss Vampire USA, a promotion for House of Dark Shadows.[25][26]

While living in the San Francisco Bay area in the early 1970s, Littlefeather participated in the 1971 American Indian Festival at Foothill College, judged a local 1972 beauty pageant as “Princess Littlefeather,” and organized a 1972 American Indian Festival at the Palace of Fine Arts.[27][28][29] She worked at a radio station, KFRC, for about six months and did freelance reporting for PBS member station KQED.[23][30]

Playboy magazine planned a spread called "10 Little Indians" in 1972, and one of the models was Littlefeather, but the spread was cancelled.[31] A year later in October 1973, after her Academy Award appearance fame, they ran the photographs of Littlefeather as a stand-alone feature.[3][32] Littlefeather was personally criticized for what was seen as exploitation of her fame,[33] but she explained that it was "strictly a business agreement" to earn the money needed to attend the World Theater Festival in Nancy, France.[34] Looking back at the photo shoot, Littlefeather later said, "I was young and dumb."[5]

In January 1973, she appeared in “Make-up for Minority Women” and was identified as a professional model.[35] As a spokesperson for the National American Indian Council, she protested President Nixon’s budget cuts to federal Indian programs in February 1973.[36] On March 6, 1973, she participated in a meeting between the Federal Communications Commission and members of several minority groups about the representation of minorities on television.[37] In an interview published just before her Academy Awards appearance, she stated that she had helped send two Indian nurses to Wounded Knee and that she had relinquished her United States citizenship, along with seven other Native Americans.[38]

Academy Awards speech, 1973

Background

Accounts of how Littlefeather initially met Brando vary. In one of her first interviews after the speech, she mentioned that they met "through his interest in the Indian movement."[39] An account from the night of the Oscar ceremony describes Francis Ford Coppola observing Littlefeather on a TV monitor backstage and stating "Sacheen Littlefeather. She lives in San Francisco. She's a friend of mine that I introduced to B . . . She's an Indian princess."[40]

A 1974 article about a Littlefeather interview stated that she was working for a San Francisco radio station when she applied for work with Coppola and that he then referred her to Brando, "knowing Brando's interest in the Indian." At the time of the Oscars, she had known Brando for nearly a year.[41] Later accounts describe Coppola as Littlefeather's neighbor in San Francisco.[42][43]

In a 2021 interview, Littlefeather said that she got to know Coppola while hiking the hills of San Francisco and she got Brando's address from him after she wrote Brando a letter, asking about his interest in Native American issues. In that account, he called the radio station where she worked months after she sent the letter.[44] Littlefeather has also said that she met Brando in Washington, D.C., where she was presenting to the Federal Communications Commission about minorities.[3]

In 1972, Brando played Vito Corleone in The Godfather, which many critics consider one of the greatest films of all time.[45] For the performance he was nominated for Best Actor at the 45th Academy Awards, which were presented on March 27, 1973, at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in Los Angeles, California.[46] Before the ceremony, Brando decided that – as the favorite to win[45] – 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.[43] 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.[3]

Awards ceremony

External video
video icon 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.[47] Producer Howard W. Koch, she would later say, told her "you can't read all that" in reference to the 739-word speech written by Brando,[48] so she condensed it all into 60 seconds.[49] In other retellings of that night, Littlefeather said Koch told her that she had 60 seconds to deliver the speech or else she would be removed from the stage and arrested.[49][50][51] Koch recalled that he permitted her to stay and make her speech after she promised not to make a scene.[52]

The Best Actor award was presented by Norwegian actress Liv Ullmann and British actor Roger Moore. After giving brief remarks and announcing the five nominees, they declared Brando as the winner. Littlefeather walked onto the stage and raised her hand to decline the Oscar trophy that Moore offered her. Deviating from the prepared speech, she said the following:[53]

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][53]

Moore escorted Littlefeather off-stage, past several people critical of her, and towards the press.[54] Littlefeather stated in 2022 that some people mockingly used the tomahawk chop towards her as she was led by.[55] Oscars producer Koch and director Marty Pasetta both later recalled that John Wayne was waiting in the wings and had to be restrained by six security guards to prevent him from forcing her off stage.[56][57][58][59][60][61] This claim has, however, been disputed by film historian Farran Nehme.[62] At a later press conference, Littlefeather read to journalists the speech that Brando had prepared; The New York Times published the full text the next day.[5]

The incident drew remarks from others at the same ceremony. Later that night, before she announced the Best Actress winner, Raquel Welch said, "I hope the winner doesn't have a cause."[63] When Clint Eastwood began presenting the Best Picture award, he joked "I don’t know if I should present this award on behalf of all the cowboys shot in all the John Ford Westerns over the years."[64][63] 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."[63]

Reception and legacy

The audience in the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion was divided between applause and jeers.[65] Brando and Littlefeather's protest was generally considered inappropriate for the awards ceremony.[33] "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."[65] Her appearance prompted the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to rule out future proxy acceptance of Academy Awards.[66]

After giving the speech, Littlefeather spent two days in Los Angeles before returning to San Francisco.[67] She later said that she visited Marlon Brando's house after the Academy Awards and bullets were fired into his front door while they were talking.[68]

According to Ann Brebner of the Brebner Agency, which handled Littlefeather's modeling bookings, she was deluged with mail and phone calls after her Oscars appearance, which led to radio and television appearances as well as the opportunity to read for multiple film roles.[69] In the years immediately following the protest, Littlefeather said that it had "had little effect on the course of her career."[41] Later, though, Littlefeather said she was blacklisted by the Hollywood community and received threats.[50] 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.[5] She has said that the federal government encouraged the blacklisting in order to abate Native American activism after Wounded Knee.[70]

Littlefeather credits the speech with bringing attention back to the Wounded Knee standoff,[50] though news coverage of the standoff at the time makes little mention of Littlefeather or Brando. Russell Means, however, said that "Marlon Brando and Sacheen Littlefeather totally uplifted" the lives of those at Wounded Knee.[71][5] Actor Jay Silverheels, who played Tonto in The Lone Ranger and later founded the Indian Actors Workshop, commented that he didn't think Littlefeather's appearance at Oscars "did any harm or any particular good. I knew Sacheen and I don't think it was her idea at all-I am sure Brando recruited her."[72]

Coretta Scott King commended Brando for his non-violent stand, stating "It is gratifying to see people in entertainment increasingly concerned about injustices in society and not just interested in making money."[73] Many years later, Littlefeather would say that King called her to thank her for the speech.[43] In 2016, the 88th 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.[74]

In June 2022, the Academy sent Littlefeather a statement of apology, in which the organization's then-president David Rubin wrote: “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. For too long the courage you showed has been unacknowledged. For this, we offer both our deepest apologies and our sincere admiration.” The statement was to be read in full at An Evening with Sacheen Littlefeather on September 17, an event honoring Littlefeather and featuring a conversation between her and producer Bird Runningwater (Cheyenne/Mescalero Apache/N.M.), the co-chair of the Academy’s Indigenous Alliance. She has also recorded an episode for the Academy Museum podcast and a visual history for the Academy Oral History Projects.[75][76]

She described the Academy's apology to her as "a dream come true," and said that "we Indians are very patient people—it's only been 50 years!" She added, "We need to keep our sense of humor about this at all times. It's our method of survival."[76]

Later career and activism

Littlefeather was described as a founding member of the "Red Earth Indian Theater Company" in Seattle when awarded an Eagle Spirit Award (Honorary) at the 2013 American Indian Film Festival.[77][78] Contemporary accounts of the founding of the Red Earth Performing Arts Company by Nez Perce actor and playwright John Kauffman, Jr in 1974 do not mention Littlefeather.[79][80][81] In 1978, it was reported that Littlefeather would travel to Newfoundland with the Greenpeace Foundation to protest the Newfoundland seal hunt along with politicians and other show business personalities.[82] She served as an advisor to PBS's Dance in America: Song for Dead Warriors (1984), which earned its choreographer, Michael Smuin, an Emmy Award.[83][84]

As a staff member of the American Indian Center, Littlefeather participated in a conference about American Indians in media at the Hotel San Franciscan.[85] As the director of the First Nation Education Resource Center in San Francisco, Littlefeather commented on a letter from two American Indians in Oakland that was handed to Nelson Mandela, stating that the letter outlined problems facing American Indians, including healthcare and unemployment. The letter, signed by Betty Cooper, director of the American Indian alcoholism program, and Sally Gallegos, director of the Consortium of United Indian Nations, was credited with Mandela's decision to meet with American Indian leaders in October 1990.[86]

She continued doing activism and became a respected member of California's Native American community.[5] She played a role in the mascot change at Tamalpais High School in the late 1980s, first becoming involved when she visited the high school as a guest director for the drama class play, "Grandmother Earth."[87][88] She criticized the use of an Indian-themed mascot at Tomales High in 2001.[89] In the 1980s, she led prayer circles for Kateri Tekakwitha, the first Native American Catholic saint.[65][90]

In a 1991 article, Littlefeather was credited with co-founding the American Indian Registry for Performing Arts. The registry was founded in the early 1980s by Muscogee actor Will Sampson, who worked with the American Native Association to publish a directory of American Indians in the arts and entertainment fields.[42][91][92] Littlefeather reported in 1991 that she was working on two shows for PBS, Remember Me Forever and The Americas Before Columbus, with both scheduled for broadcast in 1992.[11] While Littlefeather participated in events related to a year-long celebration of the Americas before Columbus, there is no record of a PBS show by either name being broadcast in 1992.[93][94] In 2009, she gave testimony in the documentary Reel Injun about Native Americans in film.[71]

In 1988, she served as the secretary and community member-at-large on the interim board of directors of the American Indian AIDS Institute of San Francisco.[95] Around this same time period, Littlefeather worked at the Gift of Love AIDS hospice in San Francisco, which was founded in 1988 by Mother Teresa, and had the opportunity to meet Mother Teresa during at least one of her five visits to the facility before her death in 1997.[96][97] She campaigned against obesity, alcoholism, and diabetes, and specifically assisted Native Americans with AIDS.[98] In 1990, it was reported that Littlefeather's brother had died of AIDS.[32][99] Obituaries for Littlefeather's father and maternal grandmother do not mention a biological son in the family, only Littlefeather and her two younger sisters.[6][100]

A 1987 profile of Littlefeather stated that she was a recipient of the 1986 Traditional Indian Medicine Achievement Award for her participation in the Traditional Indian Medicine Program at St. Mary's Hospital in Tucson, Arizona.[101] While St. Mary's Hospital and Health Center did receive an Achievement Citation from the Catholic Health Association of the United States in 1986 for Traditional Indian Medicine's Role in the Carondelet Health System,[102] an article about the award only mentions the initiator of the program, Apache nurse Belinda Acosta, and the program coordinator, Ann Hubbert.[103] Littlefeather has also described herself as one of the original teachers in St. Mary's Traditional Indian Medicine program,[3][104] which consisted of a series of conferences held between 1984 and 1990 and coordinated by Comanche medicine man Edgar Monetathchi, Jr, who worked for the Indian Health Service and was the first medicine man to be employed full-time by a Catholic hospital.[105][106][107]

In 2015, Littlefeather reported that her name and image were being used fraudulently to raise money claimed to be for the Lakota nation; money raised was never donated to any campaign.[108]

In November 2019 she received the Brando Award, which recognizes individuals for their contributions to the American Indian, from the Red Nation International Film Festival.[109] She participated in events commemorating the 50th anniversary of the occupation of Alcatraz, including serving as head pow wow judge.[110] Author Tommy Orange was commissioned by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art's Open Space platform to write a piece called "Dear Marlon Brando" as part of the magazine Alcatraz Is Not an Island, commemorating the 50th anniversary.[111] In the piece, a character from Orange's novel There, There writes to Brando about what it meant to see Littlefeather at the Oscars.

Personal life

Education

In 1974, Littlefeather attended classes at the American Conservatory Theater, studying acting, yoga, fencing, Shakespeare, dancing and other skills for her acting career.[41] She played the role of Paleflower in Winterhawk, filmed in Kalispell, Montana.[112] In 1975, Littlefeather reported that she was working on a movie script about Edward S. Curtis with Cap Weinberger, Jr, who had written an article about Curtis for Smithsonian magazine.[113] She emceed an evening performance at the United National Indian Tribal Youth conference in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma in 1976.[114] She continued to pursue acting opportunities, such as touring with the "Red Earth Theater Company."[115]

Littlefeather studied orthomolecular nutrition and later said that she had "wanted to see where all the 'white' food came from" so she went to Sweden and lived in Stockholm.[116][117][118][3] She stated that she wanted to travel in Europe to "see where the white people came from" just as people are "always going to reservations to see where the Indians came from."[3] While traveling, she was interested in the food of other cultures and noted similarities between foods such as Spanish buñuelos and Indian fry bread as well as Russian pirozhkis and the meat pies made by her Kiowa friends.[3]

Health issues

Over the years, Littlefeather described her personal experiences with serious health issues, including internal bleeding, collapsed lungs and cancer.[3][11] She reported having tuberculosis at age 4 and received treatment in an oxygen tent while hospitalized.[1][119] She has stated that she was suicidal and hospitalized in a mental institution for a year.[49] In 1974, she stated that Marlon Brando sent her to a doctor when she was in a lot of pain and helped her recover, so she made the Oscar speech to repay him.[49]

At the age of 29 her lungs collapsed.[1] After recovering, she received a degree from Antioch University in holistic health and nutrition with an emphasis in Native American medicine, a practice she credited with her recovery.[3][101] In 1991, Littlefeather was reported to be recovering from radical cancer surgery.[11] A 1999 article stated she had had colon cancer in the early 1990s.[120] In March 2018 Littlefeather had developed stage 4 breast cancer,[121] a recurrence of the breast cancer she was reported to be in remission from in 2012.[5] In a 2021 interview, Littlefeather said that the cancer had metastasised to her right lung and she was terminally ill.[1]

Littlefeather resides in Northern California.[122]

Filmography

List of film appearances
Year Title Role Notes Ref.
1973 Counselor at Crime Maggie Cameo appearace [123]
1973 The Laughing Policeman Minor role Uncredited [124]
1974 Freebie and the Bean Minor role Uncredited [124]
1974 The Trial of Billy Jack Patsy Littlejohn [125]
1975 Johnny Firecloud Nenya [126]
1975 Winterhawk Pale Flower [127]
1978 Shoot the Sun Down Navajo Woman [128]
2009 Reel Injun Herself Documentary [71]
2018 Sacheen: Breaking the Silence Herself Short documentary [121]

References

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