Brando, Littlefeather and the Academy Awards

When Brando Stood Up to Hollywood on Behalf of American Indians

Marlon Brando at the March on Washington, 1963. Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons. U.S. Information Agency. Press and Publications Service.

The social turbulence of the 1970s was a time of much-needed change in Indian country. Native American people were in the bottom strata of all socioeconomic indicators, and it was clear to American Indian youth that change was not going to happen without dramatic action. Then came Marlon Brando to bring it all to center stage — quite literally. 

A Time of Unrest

The Alcatraz Island occupation was two years in the past by March of 1973.

Indian activists had taken over the Bureau of Indian Affairs building the year before and the siege of Wounded Knee was underway in South Dakota. Meanwhile, the Vietnam War showed no end in sight despite massive protests. No one was without an opinion and some Hollywood stars are remembered for the stands they would take, even if they were unpopular and controversial. Marlon Brando was one of those stars.

The American Indian Movement

AIM came about thanks to Native American college students in the cities and activists on the reservations who understood all too well that the conditions they were living under were a result of oppressive government policies.

Attempts were made at non-violent protests — the Alcatraz occupation was completely nonviolent although it lasted well over a year — but there were times when violence seemed like the only way to bring attention to the problem. Tensions came to a head on the Oglala Lakota Pine Ridge reservation in February 1973.

A group of heavily-armed Oglala Lakota and their American Indian Movement supporters overtook a trading post in the town of Wounded Knee, the site of the 1890 massacre. Demanding a regime change from the U.S.-backed tribal government that had been mistreating the reservation's residents for years, the occupiers found themselves in a 71-day armed battle against the FBI and the U.S. Marshal Service as the eyes of the nation watched on the evening news.

Marlon Brando: Civil Rights and the Academy Awards

Marlon Brando had a long history of supporting various social movements dating back to at least 1946 when he backed the Zionist movement for a Jewish homeland. He had also participated in the March on Washington in 1963 and he supported the work of Dr. Martin Luther King. He was even known to have donated money to the Black Panthers. Later, however, he became critical of Israel and supported the Palestinian cause.

Brando was also highly dissatisfied with the way Hollywood treated American Indians. He objected to the way Native Americans were represented in the movies. When he was nominated for an Oscar for his infamous portrayal of Don Corleone in "The Godfather," he refused to attend the ceremony. He instead sent Sacheen Littlefeather (born Marie Cruz), a young Apache/Yaqui activist who had participated in the Alcatraz Island occupation. Littlefeather was a budding model and actress, and she agreed to represent him.

When Brando was announced as the winner, Littlefeather took the stage dressed in full native regalia. She delivered a short speech on behalf of Brando declining acceptance of the award. He had actually written a 15-page speech explaining his reasons, but Littlefeather later said that she had been threatened with arrest if she attempted to read the entire speech.

Instead, she was given 60 seconds. All she was able to say was: 

"Marlon Brando has asked me to tell you, in a very long speech which I cannot share with you presently because of time but I will be glad to share with the press afterward, that he must ... very regretfully cannot accept this very generous award.

"And the reason [sic] for this being ... are the treatment of American Indians today by the film industry … excuse me… and on television in movie reruns, and also the recent happenings at Wounded Knee.

"I beg at this time that I have not intruded upon this evening and that we will, in the future ... our hearts and our understanding will meet with love and generosity.

"Thank you on behalf of Marlon Brando."

The crowd cheered and booed. The speech was shared at a press conference after the ceremony and was published in its entirety by the New York Times.

The Full Speech

Native Americans had virtually no representation in the film industry in 1973, and they were primarily used as extras while lead roles depicting Indians in several generations of Westerns were almost always awarded to white actors. Brando's speech addressed the stereotypes of Native Americans in films long before the subject would be taken seriously in the industry. 

In his original speech as printed by the New York Times, Brando said:

"Perhaps at this moment you are saying to yourself what the hell has all this got to do with the Academy Awards? Why is this woman standing up here, ruining our evening, invading our lives with things that don't concern us, and that we don't care about? Wasting our time and money and intruding in our homes.

"I think the answer to those unspoken questions is that the motion picture community has been as responsible as any for degrading the Indian and making a mockery of his character, describing his as savage, hostile and evil. It's hard enough for children to grow up in this world. When Indian children watch television, and they watch films, and when they see their race depicted as they are in films, their minds become injured in ways we can never know."

True to his political sensibilities, Brando also minced no words about America's treatment of American Indians: 

"For 200 years we have said to the Indian people who are fighting for their land, their life, their families and their right to be free: Lay down your arms, my friends, and then we will remain together ...

"When they laid down their arms, we murdered them. We lied to them. We cheated them out of their lands. We starved them into signing fraudulent agreements that we called treaties which we never kept. We turned them into beggars on a continent that gave life for as long as life can remember. And by any interpretation of history, however twisted, we did not do right. We were not lawful nor were we just in what we did. For them, we do not have to restore these people, we do not have to live up to some agreements, because it is given to us by virtue of our power to attack the rights of others, to take their property, to take their lives when they are trying to defend their land and liberty, and to make their virtues a crime and our own vices virtues."

Sacheen Littlefeather

Sacheen Littlefeather received phone calls from Coretta Scott King and Cesar Chavez as a result of her intervention at the Academy Awards, congratulating her for what she'd done. But she also received death threats and was lied about in the media, including allegations that she wasn't Indian. She was blacklisted in Hollywood.

Her speech made her famous literally overnight and her fame would be exploited by Playboy magazine. Littlefeather and a handful of other Native American women had posed for Playboy in 1972, but the photos were never been published until October 1973, not long after the Academy Awards incident. She had no legal recourse to contest their publication because she had signed a model release. 

Littlefeather has long been an accepted and highly respected member of the Native American community despite lingering speculation about her identity. She continued her social justice work for Native Americans from her home in the San Francisco Bay area and worked as an advocate for Native American AIDS patients. She committed herself to other health education work as well and worked with Mother Theresa doing hospice care for AIDS patients.