Sacheen Littlefeather, the Native American activist who endured decades of harassment after declining Marlon Brando’s best actor prize at the 1973 Oscars ceremony, will receive a formal apology from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS) at an event on Saturday.
Nearly 50 years ago, Littlefeather stood onstage after Brando was awarded for his performance in The Godfather. Speaking on his behalf, she declined the statuette and instead gave a 60-second speech to bring awareness to Native American issues.
“We were in a collaboration at that time, because [Brando] was very aware of the stereotype of Native American Indians in film, television and the sports industry. And so was I,” Littlefeather said at the event, during a conversation with Bird Runningwater, the co-chair of the Academy’s Indigenous Alliance.
“It was with prayer that I went up there,” she said. “I went up there like a proud Indian woman; with dignity, with courage, with grace and with humility.”
The event also featured speeches and performances by Indigenous artists.
“The abuse you endured because of this statement was unwarranted and unjustified,” AMPAS president David Rubin wrote to Littlefeather in June. The apology will be read in full during the live broadcast, which began at 8 p.m. ET.
Littlefeather, who is Apache and Yaqui, was just 26 when Brando — her friend and the frontrunner for that year’s award for his performance as mafia boss Vito Corleone — asked her to attend the ceremony on his behalf and decline the award.
When Brando won the prize that night, Littlefeather rose to the stage and gave a one-minute speech, calling attention to the treatment of Native Americans in Hollywood and the film industry.
Brando “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,” she said.
WATCH | Sacheen Littlefeather declines Marlon Brando’s Oscar:
She also referenced the 1973 occupation of Wounded Knee in SouthDakota, where a standoff between Lakota activists and U.S. federal agents became a pivotal moment in the struggle for Native American rights.
Wearing a buckskin dress and moccasins, Littlefeather spoke to a divided audience, half of whom applauded and half who jeered as she spoke. She later said that she was the target of racist harassment backstage, with people making stereotypical war cries at her, and that actor John Wayne tried to lunge at her while she spoke onstage.
“That was the most violent act that ever took place at the Academy Awards,” Littlefeather told Runningwater on Saturday.
She also said that a producer of the 1973 show threatened her, telling her that if she spoke for more than 60 seconds he would have her arrested and put in jail.
Littlefeather, an actor at the time, said she was blacklisted by Hollywood and harassed for many years after the speech.