The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (Ampas), the body that oversees the Academy Awards, has issued a formal apology to Sacheen Littlefeather, the Native American activist who appeared at the Oscars in 1973 as part of Marlon Brando’s refusal to accept his price. .
Brando was awarded the Academy Award for Best Actor for his role as Vito Corleone in The Godfather, but did not attend as a protest in support of Native American rights, inspired in part by the ongoing two-month occupation of the site of the 1890 Wounded Knee massacre by American Indians Movement (AIM). Instead, Littlefeather refused to accept the statuette from hosts Roger Moore and Liv Ullmann, and gave a brief speech, in which she said Brando’s stance was due to “the treatment of American Indians today by the film industry … and on television, in film reruns, and also with recent events at Wounded Knee.”
The speech was met with jeers from the audience, and Littlefeather, then 26, later reported that actor John Wayne had to be restrained by backstage security guards from attacking her, while other people backstage made offensive gestures.
Ampas has issued a statement of reconciliation signed by its president David Rubin who described her appearance as “a powerful statement that continues to remind us of the necessity of respect and the importance of human dignity”.
“The abuse you suffered as a result of this statement was unwarranted and unwarranted. The emotional toll you have endured and the cost to your own career in our industry is irreparable. For too long the courage you showed has gone unrecognized. For this we offer both our deepest apologies and our sincere admiration.” The organization has also planned an evening of “conversation, reflection, healing and celebration,” including a performance by Littlefeather with Bird Runningwater, co-chair of the Academy’s Indigenous Alliance.
Littlefeather, now 75, responded by saying: “Regarding the Academy’s apology to me, we Indians are very patient people – it’s only been 50 years! We must keep our sense of humor about this at all times. It’s our method of survival.”
“I never thought I’d live to see the day,” she added. This is a dream come true. It is deeply encouraging to see how much has changed since I did not accept the Academy Award 50 years ago.”
Beginning in February 1973, the Wounded Knee occupation was a highly publicized protest by a 200-strong group of Oglala Lakota and members of AIM on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, the same site where some 290 Lakota were killed by the US Army in 1890. The Oscars took place in March, and the occupation ended in May after an agreement with federal authorities to disarm.
In 2021, Littlefeather told the Guardian that she arrived at the ceremony just minutes before Brando’s award was announced, and had been given an eight-page speech by Brando to read if he won. However, the show’s director Howard Koch told her she could only have 60 seconds, so she improvised a speech instead. She also said she promised Brando she would not touch the statuette. “I went up there like a warrior woman. I went up there with the grace and beauty and courage and humility of my people. I spoke from my heart.”