Sacheen Littlefeather Recalls ‘Violent’ John Wayne Situation During 1973 Oscars in New Interview

by Craig Garrett

In 1973, Sacheen Littlefeather made history by becoming the first Native woman to stand on stage at the Oscars. When Marlon Brando was named best actor for The Godfather, Littlefeather declined the award on his behalf because he had boycotted the ceremony in protest of Hollywood’s portrayal of Native Americans. She was booed and cheered in equal measure, and she was escorted away from the stage.

“He very regretfully cannot accept this very generous award,” Littlefeather told an audience of millions watching the Oscars. “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 will soon be celebrated by the Academy

This weekend, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences will host “An Evening With Sacheen Littlefeather.” The special event includes conversation, reflection, healing, and celebration. This is due to the recent letter of apology received by Littlefeather 50 years after she made her stand.

Sacheen Littlefeather recently recalled the momentous evening in an interview with Variety. In it, she opened up about the infamous story of John Wayne being restrained by security. As it turns out, Littlefeather herself admits she didn’t personally see Wayne being held back. “I heard a disturbance from behind me as I was speaking up at the podium,” she told Variety. “I found out that [Wayne] had been restrained by six security men from assaulting me while I was on that stage. That was the most violent moment that had ever taken place at the Academy Awards.”

The activist confirmed in the interview that she learned of Wayne’s behavior from a security guard. “Yes, but it was never publicized. [John Wayne] was never admonished by the Academy. It was never published in the press, Sacheen Littlefeather stressed. “But the most violent moments took place then and there at the Academy Awards by John Wayne.” 

Sacheen Littlefeather became a pariah in Hollywood

While the outburst didn’t hurt Wayne’s career, Sacheen Littlefeather’s act of protest hurt hers. “I was boycotted by the FBI. They went around Hollywood and told people not to hire me. If they did, they would shut their film production down,” Littlefeather said. “In addition, other people were let on talk shows like Johnny Carson, Merv 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.”

To make matters worse, the footage of the activism became hard to find. It made Sacheen Littlefeather’s protest something of an urban legend. “Furthermore, that 60-second piece of film was kept under wraps for a long time and not shown to the general public. It wasn’t readily available.” However, the internet and social media eventually changed that. “Two generations later, it became available to the public. People started asking questions. What was that all about? Who is that woman? That is how it came to the surface once again.”

Sacheen Littlefeather is pleased with the progress recently being made. “When the [Academy] Museum included Native American Indian people on its board of directors, things started moving forward. I’m here to see a letter, 50 years later, this apology — it was something I never expected and came as a total surprise to me.”