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Who is Sacheen Littlefeather and what was her controversy with John Wayne at the 1973 Oscars?

After 50 years, the Academy has apologised to Native American actress Littlefeather after she was harrassed and abused for standing up for Native rights.

La Academia se disculpa con Sacheen Littlefeather por los Oscar de 1973
Getty Images

She had been at the centre of a row after refusing to receive Marlon Brando’s award, at his request. During her speech, Littlefeather was harassed by the assorted members for her comments in support of Native Americans. After this injustice was finally recognised, the organisation behind the Oscars, the Academy, offered an apology which has been accepted by the actress.

“I never thought I’d live to see the day I would be hearing this,” she told the Hollywood Reporter.

In the apology letter to Littlefeather made public on Monday, former president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences David Rubin wrote, “The abuse you endured... was unwarranted and unjustified,” and that the damage done to her career was “irreparable.”

Littlefeather was born Marie Louise Cruz, with mixed Native and European descent. After the 1970 occupation of Alcatraz, Cruz adopted the name Sacheen Littlefeather and became an activist for Native American rights, as well as a model and activist.

What happened at the 1973 Oscars ceremony?

On behalf of actor marlon Brando, Littlefeather refused his Best Actor award for his role in The Godfather. He was not happy about the US film industry’s representation of Native Americans.

Littlefeather told the crowd that “[Brando] very regretfully cannot accept this very generous award. And the reasons for this being the treatment of American Indians today by the film industry and on television in movie re-runs, and also with recent happenings at Wounded Knee.”

Wounded Knee was a US government siege against the American Indian Movement in South Dakota. It was near the location of a massacre of Native Americans in 1890 in which more than 300 were murdered by the US state.

Littlefeather was booed and abused by the sea of actors in the crowd. When she left the stage, Littlefeather was nearly hauled off by actor John Wayne, famous for his roles as a cowboy in the 1950s and 1960s. Speaking to the BBC in 2020, she explained that the presence of two security guards with her as well as six more kept Wayne away from her as Wayne was “furious with Marlon and furious with me.”


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