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Sacheen Littlefeather, actor and activist who declined Marlon Brando’s Oscar, dies aged 75

Sacheen Littlefeather, the activist who declined Marlon Brando’s Oscar for The Godfather, has died aged 75, the Academy of Motion Pictures announced on Sunday.

Littlefeather had breast cancer.

The Academy announced her death in a tweet on Sunday night. The Hollywood Reporter cited a statement from her caretaker that said she died at noon on Sunday at her home in the northern California city of Novato, surrounded by her loved ones.

Brando won the best actor Oscar in 1973 for his role in the Godfather but did not attend the ceremony, protesting in support of Indigenous rights. Littlefeather appeared at the event on Brando’s behalf. She declined to accept the award and gave a short speech explaining the actor’s refusal was due, in part, to “the treatment of American Indians today by the film industry … and on television, in movie reruns.”

Littlefeather, then 26, was booed; she later alleged that actor John Wayne had to be held back by security guards backstage from assaulting her. Other individuals backstage reportedly made offensive gestures. She was blacklisted by Hollywood after the ceremony.

In August, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences issued a formal apology to Littlefeather over her treatment.

The body that oversees the Oscars described her appearance as “a powerful statement that continues to remind us of the necessity of respect and the importance of human dignity”.

“The abuse you endured because of this statement was unwarranted and unjustified. The emotional burden you have lived through and the cost to your own career in our industry are irreparable. For too long the courage you showed has been unacknowledged. For this, we offer both our deepest apologies and our sincere admiration,” it said.

Littlefeather responded by saying: “Regarding the Academy’s apology to me, we Indians are very patient people – it’s only been 50 years! We need to keep our sense of humour about this at all times. It’s our method of survival.”

In an interview with the Guardian in 2021, Littlefeather told of her tough childhood. She was born in 1946, the daughter of an Apache and Yaqui father and a white mother – both of whom were mentally ill and unable to raise her. She was taken away at the age of three and raised by her maternal grandparents; she remembered, as a small child, hitting her father with a broom to stop him from beating her mother. “I think that’s when I really became an activist.”

Littlefeather began visiting reservations in Arizona when she was 17, after her father had died. “I really had a breakthrough, with other urban Indian people, getting back into our traditions, our heritage. The old people who came from different reservations taught us young people how to be Indian again. It was wonderful.”

By her early 20s, Littlefeather was working at a San Francisco radio station, heading up a local affirmative action committee for Indigenous people, and studying representation on screen and in sports. When she heard Marlon Brando speaking about Native American rights, she wrote him a letter; months later, he called, and they became good friends.

In the same interview, Littlefeather – now an elder, teaching cultural knowledge to younger Indigenous people – said she was “very, very ill” with breast cancer.

“I’ve been on chemotherapy for quite some time, and daily antibiotics. As a result, my memory is not as good as it used to be,” she said. “I’m very tired all the time because cancer is a full-time job: the CT scans, MRIs, laboratory blood work, medical visits, chemotherapy, infectious disease control doctors, etc, etc. If you’re lazy, you need not apply for cancer.”

Speaking of death, she said: “I’m going to another place. I’m going to the world of my ancestors. I’m saying goodbye to you … I’ve earned the right to be my true self.”

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