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The Academy finally apologises to Sacheen Littlefeather

Apache activist and actress, Sacheen Littlefeather, was booed off stage after accepting an Oscar on behalf of Marlon Brando. Now, 50 years later, the Academy has finally apologised. 

When Marlon Brando won an Academy Award for ‘The Godfather’ in 1973, he wasn’t there to receive his accolade. Instead, indigenous actress Sacheen Littlefeather, of Apache heritage, walked on stage to collect the Oscar on Brando’s behalf.

Littlefeather’s surprise appearance was part of a political statement by Brando, who wanted to shine a light on the mistreatment and misrepresentation of indigenous people in Hollywood.

It remains one of the most-viewed Oscar speeches of all time, and is considered the Academy Awards’ most overt political moment.

But Littlefeather was not warmly received at the time. In a speech penned by Brando, she told the audience of the Wounded Knee occupation – a 1973 protest by Native Americans following failure by the US government to fulfil treaties with indigenous Americans.

The response was booing and discriminatory statements. Backstage, Littlefeather was even threatened with arrest. Actor John Wayne was reportedly so enraged he had to be restrained from charging on stage.

In the years since, Littlefeather has heard nothing from the Academy – despite claims its tried to face up to its muddy racial past. Instead, the actress received a vitriol of hate from both the public and the media, and had her acting career placed on hold by the federal government.

But on Monday, almost 50 years after the fact, the Oscars released a statement apologising for the ‘abuse’ Littlefeather experienced as a result of her appearance on the show.

The letter was issued by Academy president David Rubin, and will be read in full at a September Academy Museum event honouring Littlefeather herself.

‘The emotional burden you have lived through and the cost to your career in our industry are irreparable’ Rubin said. ‘For too long the courage you showed has been unacknowledged. For this, we offer both our deepest apologies and our sincere admiration’.

In an interview with The Hollywood Reporter, Littlefeather shared her ‘stunned’ response to the apology. ‘I never thought I’d live to see the day I would be hearing this, experiencing this’, she said.

Littlefeather’s memories of the night reflect on changes to the film industry in recent years – as well as struggles to undo years of inequality.

‘I focused in on the mouths and the jaws that were dropped open in the audience, and there were quite a few’, Littlefeather said in an interview with the Academy. ‘But it was like looking into a sea of Clorox, you know, there were very few people of colour in the audience’.

Conversations around representation at the Oscars have grown year on year. But controversy still follows the Academy over its lack of diversity.

Every year, nominations and wins are the crucible for important discussions around race, equality, and privilege.

In 2016, an all-white set of nominations sparked the global #OscarsSoWhite protest. But years on, not much has changed.

In 2020, only one Black actor received a nomination. Cynthia Erivo, who received a nod for best actress, said ‘It’s not enough that I’m the only one. It just isn’t’.

And this year, in 2022, the Academy was slammed for inappropriate music choices, after British actor Daniel Kaluuya and American singer H.E.R were backed by the soundtrack to Toto’s ‘Africa’ as they walked onstage.

The Oscars’ apology to Littlefeather is reassuring, but in the wake of continued controversy and fumbling attempts at inclusion, it’s hard to believe.

It’s also painfully overdue. Waiting half a decade to address your mistakes is hardly admirable. The Academy’s decision to release this statement in the wake of other apologies for indigenous mistreatment is also in line with a long tradition of tick-boxing Hollywood.

But Littlefeather is focusing on the positives. The Academy’s ‘Evening with Sacheen Littlefeather’ event this September has been described as an event of ‘conversation, reflection, healing and celebration’, a statement Littlefeather has found comfort in.

‘It feels like the sacred circle is completing itself before I go in this life’, she said, alluding to her terminal breast cancer diagnosis.

Littlefeather also shared that she’s looking forward to the Native American performers and speakers at the event. ‘I am so proud of each and every person who will appear onstage’, she reflected, drawing a comparison between her own experience at the Oscars podium in 1973.

A commendable appreciation by Littlefeather is ultimately the outcome of inherent self-belief. In the face of all adversity, false promise, and neglect, she stands by the statements she made 50 years ago – perhaps holding on to a hope that one day others would too.

‘I never stood up onstage in 1973 for any kind of accolades’, Littlefeather said. ‘I only stood there because my ancestors were with me, and I spoke the truth’.


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