Sacheen Littlefeather: actress and activist who delivered Marlon Brando’s Oscar rejection speech dies aged 75

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Native American actress and activist Sacheen Littlefeather was booed at the Academy awards for declining Marlon Brando’s Oscar on his behalf

Sacheen Littlefeather, the Native American actor and activist who declined Marlon Brando’s Oscar, has died aged 75.

Littlefeather is known for famously taking to the stage at the 1973 Academy Awards to reveal that Marlon Brando would not accept his Oscar for The Godfather.

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She rejected the trophy as part of the actor’s protest of Hollywood’s depictions of Native American people.

Native American actress and activist Sacheen Littlefeather has died aged 75 (Photo: Getty Images)Native American actress and activist Sacheen Littlefeather has died aged 75 (Photo: Getty Images)
Native American actress and activist Sacheen Littlefeather has died aged 75 (Photo: Getty Images) | Getty Images

What happened? 

According to a statement sent out by her caretaker, Littlefeather died at noon on Sunday 2 October, surrounded by her loved ones at her home in Novato California.

The Academy of Motion Pictures also announced the news via Twitter, writing: "Sacheen Littlefeather, Native American civil rights activist who famously declined Marlon Brando’s 1973 Best Actor Academy Award, dies at 75”.

In March 2018, Littlefeather revealed she had been diagnosed with stage 4 breast cancer and later announced in 2021 that her cancer metastasised into her right lung.

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On 17 September 2022, at a ceremony titled “An Evening with Sacheen Littlefeather”, she told the crowd: “I’m crossing over soon to the spirit world and you know, I’m not afraid to die.

“Because we come from a we/us/our society. We don’t come from a me/I/myself society. And we learn to give away from a very young age. When we are honoured, we give."

What is Sacheen Littlefeather’s legacy? 

Littlefeather is known for taking the Oscar’s stage on Marlon Brando’s behalf, when he won Best Actor for The Godfather in 1973.

In her speech, she rejected the trophy as part of Brandon’s protest of Hollywood’s depictions of Native American people.

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The protest was also intended to highlight the events at Wounded Knee, South Dakota - where 200 Oglala Lakota seized and occupied the town of Wounded Knee to protest the failure of impeaching tribal president Richard Wilson, whom they accused of corruption and abuse of opponents.

At the time, her speech was met with mixed reactions and she was booed by several big stars, including John Wayne.

In June 2022, 49 years after the event, the Academy issued Littlefeather with an apology saying: "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."

In response, Littlefeather said: "This is a dream come true. It is profoundly heartening to see how much has changed since I did not accept the Academy Award 50 years ago."

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However, the speech had an effect on her career and her last Hollywood role came five years later, in Shoot the Sun Down (1978).

She also starred in films such as The Laughing Policeman (1973), The Trial of Billy Jack (1974) and Johnny Firecloud (1975).

After her acting career, Littlefeather delved deep into activism. In 1978, it was reported that Littlefeather would travel with Greenpeace foundation to protest the Newfoundland seal hunt.

She also served as an advisor for Dance in America: Song for Dead Warriors (1984) which gave Micheal Smuin, the choreographer, an Emmy Award.

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A 1987 profile of Littlefeather stated that she received the 1986 Traditional Indian Medicine Achievement Award for her participation in the Traditional Indian Medicine Program at St. Mary’s Hospital in Tucson, Arizona

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.

In November 2019 she received the Brando Award - recognising individuals for their contributions to the American Indian, from the Red Nation International Film Festival.

Tributes to Sacheen Littlefeather

Many people have taken to Twitter to pay tribute to Littlefeather following the news of her death.

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Hansraj Meena, founder of Tribal Army - a platform to challenge the neglect of Indigenous people of India, wrote: "RIP #SacheenLittlefeather. Sacheen Littlefeather was an Indigenous activist who famously rejected the Oscar for Best Actor in 1973on behalf of Marlon Brando in protest against the mistreatment of Indigenous Peoples in Hollywood & to bring attention to the Wounded Knee Occupation."

Actor Samuel West added: "It was fifty years before she got an apology, and today she is remembered for her courage. Rest in power, Sacheen Littlefeather".

Senior Editor of The Hollywood Reporter, Rebecca Sun wrote: "This is sad for everyone who had the pleasure of experiencing Sacheen Littlefeather’s light, but having heard her speak just two weeks ago at the @TheAcademy Museum event in her honor, may they be comforted in knowing that she moves on in peace."

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