Sacheen Littlefeather, who memorably substituted for Marlon Brando at the Oscars, has died

Sacheen Littlefeather, a Native American rights activist who received a formal apology from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for the mistreatment she endured at the 1973 Academy Awards, passed away at the age of 75.

Littlefeather is a Native American civil rights advocate who was born to a European American mother and an Apache and Yaqui father. By declining to accept Brando’s medal on his behalf at the 1973 Academy Awards, Littlefeather made history by compelling Hollywood and America to address their treatment of Native Americans.

She spoke while wearing traditional attire, explaining that Brando “very regretfully cannot accept this generous award, the reasons for this being … the treatment of American Indians today by the film industry and on television in movie reruns, and also with recent happenings at Wounded Knee.”

Even though Littlefeather’s little statement was polite and non-confrontational, she nevertheless ended up the subject of jokes that evening. Later that night, Clint Eastwood gave the best picture prize, saying,  “I don’t know if I should present this award on behalf of all the cowboys shot in all the John Ford westerns over the years.” Raquel Welch joked when she awarded the prize for outstanding actress, “I hope they haven’t got a cause.”

Littlefeather subsequently claimed that John Wayne had tried to attack her behind the scenes.

She said: “A lot of people were making money off of that racism of the Hollywood Indian. Of course, they’re going to boo. They don’t want their evening interrupted.”

In an interview with “The Dick Cavett Show” three months later, Brando gave his justification for turning down the award.

Brando said: “I felt there was an opportunity. Since the American Indian hasn’t been able to have his voice heard anywhere in the history of the United States, I thought it was a marvelous opportunity to voice his opinion to 85 million people. I felt that he had a right to, in view of what Hollywood has done to him.”

This past August, over fifty years after the event, the Academy officially apologized.

According to CNN, in a letter to Littlefeather, the former Academy President David Rubin wrote:

“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.”

On September 17, the Academy held a celebration for Littlefeather at the David Geffen Theater for almost 800 attendees, of whom roughly half are Native Americans. Before formally accepting the apologies, Littlefeather requested them to rise.

“I am here accepting this apology, not only for me alone but as acknowledgment, knowing that it was not only for me, but for all of our nations that also need to hear and deserve this apology tonight.”

Littlefeather also participated in the Native American takeover of Alcatraz Island in 1969, and in the early 1970s, she started performing with the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco. She believes she was “red-listed” from the industry following the Oscars fiasco, which put a stop to her showbiz career.

The rest of her life, though, she continued to speak out strongly in favor of Native American rights. As a member of the American Indian AIDS Institute of San Francisco’s board of directors and a Greenpeace employee, she also participated in the environmental movement.

Littlefeather passed away from breast cancer at her Marin County, California, home on October 2 in peace, according to her niece. In the closing months of her life, the Academy’s apology gave her a feeling of closure.

Littlefeather said: “It feels like the sacred circle is completing itself before I go in this life. It feels like a big cleanse, if you will, of mind, body, and spirit, and of heart. It feels that the truth will be known. And it feels like the creator is being good to me.”