As 26-year-old actor and activist Sacheen Littlefeather walked on stage to refuse an Oscar on behalf of actor Marlon Brando, it ignited a fire that has lasted almost 50 years. She was the first Native American woman to stand on the Oscars stage, acknowledging the ethnic misrepresentation in the industry. To this day, the fire still glows, and the words she and Brando spoke have inspired many through the years.
The Fight for Representation in Hollywood
At the 1973 Oscars, Brando won the Best Actor award for his role in The Godfather. Instructed not to touch the award, Littlefeather prayed to her ancestors as she walked. She was given an eight-page speech written by the actor, which she could not read as she would have been arrested for going over time. Hence as she gave a shortened speech at the podium, she was consequently booed and mocked with “tomahawk chops.” It went so far that actor John Wayne, had to be reportedly held back from charging at her. On that night, 85 million people watched the ceremony.
The harassment, unfortunately, continued after that night. An unknown assailant shot at her as she returned to Brando’s residence after the ceremony. Many people even labelled her as Brando’s mistress, claiming she wasn’t even Native American, claims that were blatantly untrue. Hollywood as a result, even blacklisted her;
“I couldn’t get a job to save my life. I knew that J. Edgar Hoover had gone around and told people in the industry not to hire me.”Sacheen Littlefeather, Guardian
The event came as a result of a long fight for proper representation of other minorities in the industry. Hollywood has had a dark and murky history with its treatment of cultures and people of color. The constant racial stereotyping of minorities, from Native Americans, portrayed as aggressive savages to the nerdy Asian stereotype prevalent today. Black actors when nominated, are more often than not stereotyped roles. Mostly pushed into the supporting role category, there have been too many snubs. Evidently, we see this in actress Halle Berry, the only woman to have won the Best Actress Oscar in history.
An Apology “long overdue” for Littlefeather
Now almost fifty years later, the Academy finally issued a formal apology to the activist, stating:
“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.”David Rubin, Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences
For years Littlefeather has waited for this acknowledgment. “I was stunned. I never thought I’d live to see the day I would be hearing this, experiencing this”. The apology, personally read out to her in June; now the Academy is to present it in an event honoring her. The event, a “very special program of conversation, reflection, healing, and celebration,” comes after Brando himself wished that people simply listened to her.
In media today, Littlefeather pleased to see Native American representation. Actor Wes Studi became the first native American to win an honorary Academy Award. The show Reservation Dogs has been significant in breaking Native American stereotypes.
Consequently, the Academy tried to correct its wrongs by enlisting the Academy Inclusion Advisory Committee for their museum. In 2020, they also announced a new phase “to advance inclusion in the entertainment industry and increase representation within its membership and the greater film community.” Thus, the 2022 Oscars, though riddled with controversy, handed awards to people of color in 9 out of 20 categories.
Behind every new venture and phase, nevertheless, there is the sacrifice that came from the hands of people like Sacheen Littlefeather. Now 75, living with metastasized breast cancer, she feared that she would never hear her apology, yet she waited, joking,
“Regarding the Academy’s apology to me, we Indians are very patient people—it’s only been 50 years! We need to keep our sense of humor about this at all times. It’s our method of survival,”Sacheen Littlefeather, Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences
For Hollywood, this has been an enormous step. Yet still, studies have revealed that representation of Native Americans in films and television is still only 0.6%, practically non-existent. A number that speaks for itself, showing us that despite everything that has happened, there is still a long way to go.