Forty years ago, Native American activist Sacheen Littlefeather refused Marlon Brando's Oscar of his behalf.

By Josh Rottenberg
January 18, 2013 at 05:00 AM EST

She was not to touch the Oscar, no matter what happened. Marlon Brando had been very clear on that — and when Marlon Brando spoke, you listened. The legendary actor had asked Sacheen Littlefeather, a little-known 26-year-old Native American activist and aspiring actress, to represent him at the 1973 Academy Awards — where he was nominated for Best Actor for playing Don Vito Corleone in The Godfather — and should he win, to refuse the award on his behalf.

When Brando’s name was announced, Littlefeather walked up to the stage to the Godfather theme, her expression somber. Presenter Roger Moore attempted to give her the statuette, but she silently held up her hand. Brando had written a lengthy speech for Littlefeather to deliver, but she had been warned by the producer of the Oscar telecast, Howard W. Koch, that if she stayed on the stage for more than one minute, she’d be arrested. So, in her own words, she explained that the actor was regretfully turning down the award to protest ”the treatment of American Indians today by the film industry” and the ongoing siege of 200 American Indian Movement activists by armed local and federal authorities in Wounded Knee, S.D. A mix of boos and applause arose from the audience. ”I beg at this time that I have not intruded upon this evening,” Littlefeather concluded, ”and that we will, in the future, our hearts and our understandings will meet with love and generosity.”

Forty years later, on a bright January morning, Littlefeather, now 66, sits in the living room of her small, tidy home outside San Francisco. Wryly funny and quick to laugh despite an ongoing battle with breast cancer, she is wary about being interviewed and has asked two friends to join her for moral support. Before the conversation begins, the women hold a brief ceremony, burning a sprig of dried cedar and praying that the interview be conducted ”with all the respect it requires.”

In the years since her Oscar appearance — one of the most controversial ever — Littlefeather has heard various false allegations: that she’s not really a Native American, that she rented her buckskin dress, that she was a wannabe riding Brando’s coattails. ”A lot of the stories I’ve read about myself, I don’t even recognize who they’re writing about. It’s just made-up stuff.”

The hostility toward her continues to this day. Last August on The Tonight Show, Dennis Miller cracked about then Senate candidate Elizabeth Warren, who had claimed some Cherokee ancestry: ”She’s about as much Indian as that stripper chick Brando sent to pick up his Oscar for The Godfather.” Asked about Miller’s comment, Littlefeather (who did pose nude for Playboy in 1973, a decision she regrets) just sighs. ”Boy, he is the unfunniest guy I’ve ever heard,” she says. ”It goes back to the time of the Romans: If you didn’t like the message, you kill the messenger.”

Born Marie Cruz to a white mother and an Apache and Yaqui Indian father (”I say I’m half Indian and half savage,” she jokes), she was handed over to her maternal grandparents at age 3 due to abuse and neglect. As a teen in Salinas, Calif., she started exploring her heritage and became active in the Indian civil rights movement. In 1971, through her work with the National Native American Affirmative Image Committee, she began corresponding with Brando, who was passionate about Indian issues. ”He’d call me and we’d talk,” she says. ”This went on for quite some time before he came up with the idea of my representing him at the Academy Awards, which happened about a day before [the ceremony]. It was very spontaneous.” Three months after the Oscars, on The Dick Cavett Show, Brando explained: ”I felt that it was a marvelous opportunity for an Indian to be able to voice his opinion to 85 million people. I felt that he had a right to, in view of what Hollywood has done to him.”

Within the Native American community, Littlefeather’s Oscar appearance proved to be a galvanizing moment, as the late activist Russell Means, who led the protesters at Wounded Knee, attested in the 2010 documentary Reel Injun: ”We were in Wounded Knee, surrounded by the military might of the United States of America…. We don’t believe we’re going to get out of there alive, and the morale is down low, and Marlon Brando and Sacheen Littlefeather totally uplifted our lives.”

But many attending the Oscars that night were dismayed by Littlefeather’s speech. Later in the evening, while presenting Best Actress, Raquel Welch snarked, ”I hope they haven’t got a cause,” while Clint Eastwood wondered aloud if he should present Best Picture ”on behalf of all the cowboys shot in all the John Ford Westerns over the years.”

Speaking later to Cavett, Brando expressed some misgivings about the situation in which he’d placed Littlefeather: ”I was distressed that people should have booed and whistled and stomped, even though perhaps it was directed at myself. They should have at least had the courtesy to listen to her.” Soon after, the Academy banned any nominee from sending a proxy to the awards show. (Littlefeather, who is working on a memoir, declines to discuss how much contact she had with Brando after the Oscars: ”That’s for my book.”)

For most people, ascending the Oscar stage is a crowning achievement. For Littlefeather, who had studied acting at San Francisco’s American Conservatory Theater, it spelled the beginning of the end of her Hollywood ambitions. After the Oscars, she says, a friend working at a film studio told her that federal agents had advised against casting her. She landed small roles in films like 1974’s Freebie and the Bean and The Trial of Billy Jack, but her career quickly petered out. ”Basically I became unhirable. It was like trying to climb a mountain,” she says, shrugging. ”So you have to go off in a different direction.”

In fact, she went off in many directions. She helped provide health-care education and advocacy throughout the Native American community and, in the early years of the AIDS crisis, ministered to the sick and dying in San Francisco beside Mother Teresa. ”She had a house for people with AIDS and started training us hands-on,” Littlefeather says. ”We didn’t have time to waste.” Devoutly religious, she now leads a prayer circle dedicated to the first Native American Catholic saint, Kateri Tekakwitha. ”I’m an elder now, coming to the end of my road,” Littlefeather says. ”Now I am in a place of being a healer, if you will, of my own journey.”

Ask Littlefeather if she ever wonders what course that journey might have taken if Brando had picked a different messenger for his protest, or if someone else had won Best Actor that night, and she betrays no regrets. ”I promised myself a long time ago that I would lead an interesting life,” she says. ”And that’s what I’ve done, Marlon Brando or no Marlon Brando.”

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