Sacheen Littlefeather, Activist Who Declined Marlon Brando’s 1973 Oscar, Dies at 75

by Joe Rutland
(Photo Courtesy Getty Images)

Sacheen Littlefeather, who famously declined Marlon Brando’s 1973 Oscar for his role in The Godfather, died on Sunday at 75 years old. Variety reported that news of her death came from the Academy of Motion Pictures. Back in June, an apology was given to her from the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences. They apologized for the treatment that she endured that night. Littlefeather had reportedly been suffering from breast cancer.

Littlefeather would attend an in-person presentation around that apology on Sept. 17 at the Academy Museum. Brando famously played Don Corleone in The Godfather. He was supposed to pick up his Oscar at the 1973 Academy Awards but chose to send Littlefather instead.

Audience members who were there were booing her so much that she had to be escorted off the stage. She made a one-minute speech focused on Native American rights. “He very regretfully cannot accept this very generous award,” Littlefeather said to the Academy Awards audience. “And the reasons for this being are 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.”

Sacheen Littlefeather Met Marlon Brando Through Francis Ford Coppola

At a press conference later on, Littlefeather would read her entire speech. The following day, it was printed in the New York Times. Littlefeather was born Marie Louise Cruz in Salinas, California. She would become quite interested in Native American issues while attending college. Littlefeather would take part in the 1970 occupation of Alcatraz Island and adopt her name at that time. Well, after she finished college, Littlefeather would join the Screen Actors Guild and reportedly met up with Brando. He reportedly took an interest in Native American issues through his friendship with director Francis Ford Coppola. Coppola lived in San Francisco at the time, as Littlefeather did as well.

Littlefeather recently talked with Variety, in an interview, about attending the Oscars on behalf of Brando. “It was my first time at the Academy Awards,” she said. “I made it through my first hurdle, promising Marlon Brando that I would not touch that Oscar. But, as I walked off that stage, I did in the ways of courage, honor, grace, dignity, and truthfulness. I did so in the ways of my ancestors and the ways of Indigenous women.”

She would say that she was met with the “stereotypical tomahawk chop.” Littlefeather also mentioned individuals who called at her and she would ignore them all. “I continued to walk straight ahead with a couple of armed guards beside me, and I held my head high and was proud to be the first Indigenous woman in the history of the Academy Awards to make that political statement,” Littlefeather said.