Sacheen Littlefeather, the Native American actor and activist who declined Marlon Brandon’s Oscar on his behalf at the 1973 Academy Awards ceremony, has died. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences shared the news via Twitter on Sunday. No cause of death was given, though Littlefeather revealed in a 2021 interview with The Guardian that she had metastasized breast cancer which had spread to one of her lungs. She was 75 years old.
Born as Marie Louise Cruz on November 14, 1946, in Salinas, California, Littlefeather would go on to change her name as she began to explore her Apache and Yaqui heritage, eventually heading a local affirmative action committee for Native Americans and a public service director at a local San Francisco radio station.
Her name, however, became internationally known after Littlefeather went on stage during the 45th Academy Awards in 1973. Given only 60 seconds to make her speech, Littlefeather cited Brando’s refusal to accept the award due to “the treatment of American Indians today by the film industry, and on television and movie reruns,” as well as the ongoing protest by Native American activists at Wounded Knee, South Dakota.
Booed during her speech by members of the audience, Littlefeather and Brando’s act of protest reportedly left John Wayne so incensed that he “wanted to storm onto the stage and drag me off,” as Littlefeather remembered in the 2019 documentary Sacheen: Breaking The Silence.
Although she would go on to have small roles in 1970s films such as Counselor At Crime, Winterhawk, and Shoot The Sun Down, Littlefeather has said that her acting career never fully recovered after the Oscar speech, ultimately becoming essentially blacklisted by Hollywood in retaliation.
“I couldn’t get a job to save my life,” Littlefeather told The Guardian last year. “I knew that J Edgar Hoover had gone around and told people in the industry not to hire me, because he would shut their talkshow or their production down. I got the word from people in the industry that that would happen to them.”
“I did not do this totally for Marlon,” said Littlefeather. “I did not do this on my behalf. I did this for all Native people everywhere who suffered from racial prejudice and discrimination. I did it for all of those who were born under the umbrella of genocide, in the United States, and Canada, and for all of us who have suffered through extreme stereotypes which were not of our choosing.”