The Oscars have apologized to Sacheen Littlefeather, a Native American woman who was booed off the stage nearly 50 years ago. The activist and actress appeared on live TV to turn down the Oscar Marlon Brando won in 1973 for The Godfather.
Brando declined the Best Actor award due to a misinterpretation of Native Americans by the American film industry and sent Littlefeather in his place. The Academy said Littlefeather endured “unfair and inappropriate” abuse after his brief speech.
“I never thought I’d live to see the day I would be hearing this,” she told the Hollywood Reporter.
Littlefeather, then 26, was heckled and shunned by the entertainment industry following her speech at the awards. Organisers said her speech was the first political statement at the televised ceremony – beginning a trend that continues to this day.
Introducing herself on behalf of Brando – who wrote “a very long speech” – she briefly told the audience “that he very regretfully cannot accept this very generous award”.
“And the reasons for this being the treatment of American Indians today by the film industry and on television in movie re-runs, and also with recent happenings at Wounded Knee,” she said – about a violent stand-off with federal agents at a site of significant importance to the Sioux people.
She was met with boos – and some cheers – from the audience.
Some used “tomahawk chops” as a derogatory gesture to Native Americans when she passed by.
Brando wrote a very long speech, but the production team at the awards ceremony instructed Littlefeather to hold the rejection to 60 seconds.
It was shown on television to 85 million people. Some media reports after the incident claimed that Littlefeather was not a Native American but that she had agreed to the speech to help with her acting career. Some speculated that she might be Brando’s mistress.
“The abuse you endured … was unfair and unjustified,” David Rubin, former president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, wrote in a letter to Littlefeathers on Monday.
Rubin said the speech at the 45th Academy Awards “reminds us of the need for respect and the importance of human dignity”.
The Academy Museum of Motion Pictures will host an event in September in which Littlefeather will talk about her appearance at the 1973 Oscars and the future of Indigenous representation on screen.
In response to the apology, she said: “We Indians are very patient people – it’s only been 50 years!”
He added that having a sense of humour is “our way of survival”.