Everything to Know About the Academy's Mistreatment of Sacheen Littlefeather at the 1973 Oscars

·7 min read
At the 1973 Academy Awards, Sacheen Littlefeather refuses the Academy Award for Best Actor on behalf of Marlon Brando who won for his role in The Godfather. She carries a letter from Brando in which he explains he refused the award in protest of American treatment of the Native Americans.
At the 1973 Academy Awards, Sacheen Littlefeather refuses the Academy Award for Best Actor on behalf of Marlon Brando who won for his role in The Godfather. She carries a letter from Brando in which he explains he refused the award in protest of American treatment of the Native Americans.

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Sacheen Littlefeather is finally getting what she deserves.

Nearly half a century ago, the Indigenous actress and activist faced mistreatment by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences at the 45th Academy Awards — but now, the institution is offering her a formal apology.

In 1973, Littlefeather stood on the Oscar stage on behalf of Marlon Brando to turn down his Best Actor award for his performance in The Godfather, using the opportunity to call out the film industry's treatment of Native Americans.

The protest garnered mixed reactions from the audience, in addition to threats from the Academy and celebrities in attendance. For Littlefeather, her stand was detrimental to her acting career and negatively affected her life in the immediate wake of the event.

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Though Littlefeather never thought she'd be granted an apology in her lifetime, the Academy is gearing up to issue her one in full while honoring her at the institution's evening of reflection on Sept. 17.

Prior to the event, the Academy's then-president penned Littlefeather a private apology letter in June. The letter's entirety will be shared during the ceremony, while a conversation between the activist and the co-chair of the Academy's Indigenous Alliance will be had.

From what happened at the 1973 Oscars to the fallout that occurred afterward, here's everything to know about Littlefeather's experience with the Academy.

Why did Sacheen Littlefeather accept the Oscar for Marlon Brando in 1973?

Oscars Brando A woman in Native American Indian dress, who indentified herself as Sacheen Littlefeather, tells the audience at the Academy Awards ceremony in Los Angeles, that Marlon Brando was declining to accept his Oscar as best actor for his role in "The Godfather." Littlefeather said Brando was protesting "the treatment of the American Indian in motion pictures and on televison, and because of the recent events at Wounded Knee ACADEMY AWARDS BRANDO, LOS ANGELES, USA
Oscars Brando A woman in Native American Indian dress, who indentified herself as Sacheen Littlefeather, tells the audience at the Academy Awards ceremony in Los Angeles, that Marlon Brando was declining to accept his Oscar as best actor for his role in "The Godfather." Littlefeather said Brando was protesting "the treatment of the American Indian in motion pictures and on televison, and because of the recent events at Wounded Knee ACADEMY AWARDS BRANDO, LOS ANGELES, USA

AP/Shutterstock

At the 45th Academy Awards in 1973, Brando won Best Actor for his performance in The Godfather, but in an effort to protest the siege at Wounded Knee that began a month prior — in addition to the film industry's treatment of Native Americans — the actor sent Littlefeather in his place.

As the president of the National Native American Affirmative Image Committee, Littlefeather took the podium under strict guidelines. Per Brando's instruction, she wasn't to touch the statuette. The show's producer, Howard Koch, also told her to keep the speech to 60 seconds.

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According to The Hollywood Reporter, Koch told Littlefeather moments before stepping on stage that security was on standby should her comments exceed the minute limit. (Littlefeather's televised appearance ceremony was amid a U.S. Department of Justice-imposed media blackout.)

"You know, I never stood up onstage in 1973 for any kind of accolades," she told THR almost 50 years later. "I only stood there because my ancestors were with me, and I spoke the truth."

What did Sacheen Littlefeather say in the acceptance speech?

At the 1973 Academy Awards, Sacheen Littlefeather refuses the Academy Award for Best Actor on behalf of Marlon Brando who won for his role in The Godfather. She carries a letter from Brando in which he explains he refused the award in protest of American treatment of the Native Americans.
At the 1973 Academy Awards, Sacheen Littlefeather refuses the Academy Award for Best Actor on behalf of Marlon Brando who won for his role in The Godfather. She carries a letter from Brando in which he explains he refused the award in protest of American treatment of the Native Americans.

Bettmann Archive

Although Brando provided Littlefeather with a 15-page speech to read on his behalf, she was forced to improvise due to the unexpected time limit disclosed minutes prior to the award presentation. (She saved the written words for the press room after.)

The Apache activist said on stage: "[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."

Drawing a mix of "boos" and applause from the audience, Littlefeather continued: "And on television in movie reruns, and also with recent happenings at Wounded Knee. I beg at this time that I have not intruded upon this evening and that we will in the future, our hearts and our understandings will meet with love and generosity."

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How did the Academy mistreat Sacheen Littlefeather?

Sacheen Littlefeather (Native American actress Maria Cruz) holds a written statement from actor Marlon Brando refusing his Best Actor Oscar on stage at the Academy Awards on March 27, 1973 in Los Angeles, California.
Sacheen Littlefeather (Native American actress Maria Cruz) holds a written statement from actor Marlon Brando refusing his Best Actor Oscar on stage at the Academy Awards on March 27, 1973 in Los Angeles, California.

Michael Ochs Archvies/Getty

In addition to being threatened with arrest if her speech went over 60 seconds, as well as attempted physical violence from John Wayne — who she said attempted to storm the stage — Littlefeather has since faced public mockery over the years for the historic moment.

"I remember the faces in the crowd," Littlefeather recalled three decades after the event took place. "John Wayne, backstage, had to be restrained by six men from coming to get me and pull me off the stage."

In 1990, Littlefeather spoke to PEOPLE about the fallout she faced in response to her Oscars moment. "I'm officially retired as the refuser of Academy Awards," she said, noting that the speech killed her career in Hollywood.

"I went up there thinking I could make a difference," explained Littlefeather. "I was very naive. I told people about oppression. They said, 'You're ruining our evening.' "

RELATED: Will Smith Banned from Oscars Ceremony for Next 10 Years After Chris Rock Slap, Academy Decides

After the event, the Academy banned accepting awards by proxy. Furthermore, the THR noted that the federal government threatened to shut down any programs that featured Littlefeather on air.

In a recent interview with Variety, Littlefeather said she was "boycotted by the FBI," adding: "They went around Hollywood and told people not to hire me. If they did, they would shut their film production down."

"In addition, other people were let on talk shows like Johnny CarsonMerv Griffin, and other popular talk shows. They could go on there and talk about me, but I was never allowed to go on them and represent myself," she said.

Why is the Academy apologizing nearly 50 years later?

Activist Sacheen Littlefeather attends the SAG President's National Task Force For American Indians & NBC Universal Premiere Screening Of "Reel indian" & "American Indian Actors" At LA Skins Fest on November 20, 2010 in Los Angeles, California.
Activist Sacheen Littlefeather attends the SAG President's National Task Force For American Indians & NBC Universal Premiere Screening Of "Reel indian" & "American Indian Actors" At LA Skins Fest on November 20, 2010 in Los Angeles, California.

Valerie Macon/Getty

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is set to publicly apologize to Littlefeather nearly 50 years after she faced mistreatment from the institution at the 45th Academy Awards in 1973.

First issued privately to Littlefeather in June, the apology letter was penned ahead of the Academy's evening of reflection set to occur on Sept. 17 at the Academy Museum in Los Angeles.

Then-Academy president David Rubin wrote in part: "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."

The activist is set to return as the institution's invited guest of honor. Not only will the letter be read in full (and a formal apology be given), but Littlefeather will participate in a conversation with producer Bird Runningwater, co-chair of the Academy's Indigenous Alliance.

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Did Sacheen Littlefeather accept the Academy's apology?

Sacheen Littlefeather Activist and actress Sacheen Littlefeather takes part in a panel discussion on the PBS special "Reel Injun" at the PBS Television Critics Association summer press tour in Beverly Hills, Calif Summer TCA Tour PBS, Beverly Hills, USA
Sacheen Littlefeather Activist and actress Sacheen Littlefeather takes part in a panel discussion on the PBS special "Reel Injun" at the PBS Television Critics Association summer press tour in Beverly Hills, Calif Summer TCA Tour PBS, Beverly Hills, USA

Chris Pizzello/AP/Shutterstock

Littlefeather was in disbelief upon receiving an apology from the Academy, telling THR that she was "stunned." She added, "I never thought I'd live to see the day I would be hearing this, experiencing this. When I was at the podium in 1973, I stood there alone," she recalled of her Oscar moment.

"Yes, there's an apology that's due. As my friends in the Native community said, it's long overdue. I could have been dead by now," added Littlefeather, who is living with metastasized breast cancer.

The activist lost her husband Charles Koshiway to blood cancer last November. "His spirit is still here with me, and I know that what he wanted for me was always justice and reconciliation," she said.

She added of the attendees who stood by as she was harassed: "When they got to the other side, I'm sure that my ancestors spoke to them on my behalf. And I'm sure Mr. Charles went over there and had a talk with them immediately. I'm sure his first target was John Wayne."

What has Sacheen Littlefeather said about John Wayne's attempted attack?

In 2004, Littlefeather recalled the events that took place involving Wayne's attempted attack on her while she was on stage. But recently, she revealed further details from that night in an interview with Variety.

"I heard a disturbance from behind me as I was speaking up at the podium," she explained. "I found out that [Wayne] had been restrained by six security men from assaulting me while I was on that stage."

She then called it "the most violent moment that had ever taken place at the Academy Awards."

Littlefeather said she was informed about what was going on backstage by a security guard, noting, "But it was never publicized."

"He was never admonished by the Academy. It was never published in the press," she continued. "But the most violent moments took place then and there at the Academy Awards by John Wayne."