Sacheen Littlefeather, Oscar boo 50 years ago: ‘I did it for the Native American people’

It was fifty years ago. It was yesterday and an eternity ago. Reminder of the facts: on March 27, 1973, in place of Marlon Brando, crowned best actor at the Oscars for “The Godfather”, it was Sacheen Littlefeather, a young 26-year-old Native American actress who came on stage at his request, to refuse the price, as a sign of protest against the “mistreatment of American Indians in the motion picture industry”. Faced with boos from the public, Sacheen Littlefeather leaves the stage after sixty seconds of speech: the rest of her career will be meager, very meager.

Half a century later, the Academy of Oscars sends on August 15, 2022, a letter of apology to the actress. This same Academy which had castigated her fifty years earlier even invites her to organize an evening in her name on September 17, with a very special program of discussion, reflection and healing around the actress and other Native American guests. .

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The Indian activist returned for “Variety » on this evening which changed the course of his life forever.

“There were a lot of cancellations in their plans thanks to my speech”

All eyes were on her on March 27, 1973, when she became the first Native American woman to stand on the Oscars stage. During his committed speech, the audience applauds, but the audience boos, too. After sixty seconds on the microphone, Sacheen Littlefeather leaves the stage. And after ? What happens when the cameras are no longer focused on her?

“When I came down from that stage, I did so with courage, honor, dignity and authenticity. I did it the way my ancestors and indigenous women did. […] I kept walking straight ahead with guards by my side, and held my head held high, proud to be the first indigenous woman in Oscar history to speak on this topic. »

The importance of this event in history is monumental. For Sacheen Littlefeather on the one hand, for her people, on the other hand, for Hollywood, of course, but also for Native American activists.

During her speech, Marlon Brando’s spokesperson also sheds light on the ongoing events at Wounded Knee, South Dakota. A historic site for Native Americans, this area had witnessed, on December 28, 1890, the massacre of 300 men, women and children from Indian tribes in North and South Dakota by 500 American soldiers. In February 1973, the site, then part of the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, began a historic occupation by 200 Olgala Sioux and AIM activists protesting the corruption of Tribal Council Chairman Dicky Wilson. On stage, Sacheen Littlefeather recalls the gravity of the situation and the importance of the occupation of this territory by her people. The siege will last 71 days before the militants surrender and then escape.

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In her interview with “Variety”, Sacheen Littlefeather talks about the consequences of her speech, which helped the cause of the American Indian Movement:

“The FBI wanted to take all AIM-sters (members of the American Indian Movement) like Dennis Banks and my brothers Russel Means and Oren Lyons to a place like Guantanamo Bay. We would never hear from them again, but that didn’t happen because of my speech. There were other talks going on, Oren told me, that the US government was planning to build some sort of military base there on the reservation, and that the talk also thwarted their plans. There were a lot of cancellations in their plans thanks to my speech. »

IAM members, March 19, 1973 at the time of the occupation of Wounded Knee. (ANONYMOUS/AP/SIPA / ANONYMOUS/AP/SIPA)

On September 7, the history of the Wounded Knee site had a happy ending, as the council of the Ogala Sioux tribe purchased 40 hectares of the area, which made almost all of the historic territory of Wounded Knee the property of the Ogala Sioux. A victory for activists and for Sacheen Littlefeather.

“I was boycotted by the FBI”

Sacheen Littlefeather holds no animosity toward the Academy or the public, she says. And yet, she experienced great violence from the spectators present at the ceremony, and especially from actor John Wayne, who wanted to attack her on the stage. But the most serious repercussions will be on the career of the young actress. At the time, the FBI made every effort to boycott Sacheen Littlefeather:

“I was boycotted by the FBI. They would go to Hollywood and tell people not to hire me. If they did, the FBI would cancel their production. On top of all that, other people were allowed to go on talk shows like those of Johnny Carson, Merv Griffin and other more popular ones. They could go to these shows and talk about me, but I was never allowed to go myself to speak. »

To the question “if you had to do it again, would you go on stage to receive this Oscar instead of Marlon Brando? », the 75-year-old Native American now answers yes, “in a heartbeat”. Having become an icon of activism in favor of Native American rights, Sacheen Littlefeather is careful not to judge others:

“I can’t speak for others, but people have to look into their hearts. They have to see what is good for them, what they say and what they do. It’s not for me to judge, so I can’t make a statement for them. […] I am not rich. I am poor. I don’t have much, but I do what I can. I try not to judge others. So what others want to do and feel in their hearts that it is good to do, they should do. »

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Sacheen Littlefeather, Oscar boo 50 years ago: ‘I did it for the Native American people’