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Academy apologizes to Sacheen Littlefeather for mistreatment over 1973 Oscar protest

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

In 1973, Marlon Brando won the Oscar for best actor for playing Don Corleone in "The Godfather."

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE GODFATHER")

MARLON BRANDO: (As Don Corleone) I'm going to make him an offer he can't refuse.

SUMMERS: Brando sent someone else to the Oscars, and that caused a huge stir. And now the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is trying to make it up to the woman who was his stand-in. NPR's Mandalit del Barco reports.

MANDALIT DEL BARCO, BYLINE: Marlon Brando was very vocal about his support for Native Americans who were protesting their historic mistreatment. At the time in 1973, members of the American Indian Movement had occupied the town of Wounded Knee on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. To bring awareness to their standoff with federal agents, Brando decided to use his platform at the Oscars. In his place, he sent a friend, a 26-year-old actress and activist.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SACHEEN LITTLEFEATHER: My name is Sacheen Littlefeather. I'm Apache, and I'm president of the National Native American Affirmative Image Committee.

DEL BARCO: Wearing a buckskin dress and moccasins, Littlefeather calmly waved away the Oscar statuette. She announced that Brando respectfully declined the award.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LITTLEFEATHER: And the reasons for this being are the treatment of American Indians today by the film industry. Excuse me.

(BOOING)

DEL BARCO: Littlefeather was interrupted by boos and some cheers from the audience. Now, in her 70s, she recalled her Oscars moment.

LITTLEFEATHER: People were making money off of that racism of the Hollywood Indian. Of course, they're going to boo. They don't want their evening interrupted.

DEL BARCO: That's what she told KQED Radio in 2020. And she repeated her story to the Academy on their official podcast this summer. Littlefeather recalled that actor John Wayne, who played a cowboy in countless Western films, had been incensed.

LITTLEFEATHER: He attempted to assault me onstage. He had to be restrained by six security men in order to prevent him from doing exactly that.

DEL BARCO: Those details were supported by Academy officials. Littlefeather said she was escorted offstage by a team of security guards, and for years, she said, Hollywood boycotted her. She called it being red listed.

LITTLEFEATHER: I have a friend who was with a particular studio, and she told me, Sacheen, the FBI were just here, and they told us that if we would ever hire you, they would shut us down, shut our production down. So there were lies that were printed about me in the press, said I rented my buckskin dress, that I wasn't Indian, I was a Mexican actress, that it was all a publicity stunt.

DEL BARCO: In June, David Rubin, then-president of the Academy, sent Littlefeather a letter of apology. He wrote the harassment and discrimination she suffered was, quote, "unwarranted and unjustified." Filmmaker Bird Runningwater co-chairs the Academy's Indigenous Alliance.

BIRD RUNNINGWATER: You know, it's really the beginning of a larger reconciliation that really needs to happen between, you know, our American film industry for the 100-plus years of misrepresentation and erasure of Native people in American popular culture.

DEL BARCO: Runningwater points to the recent success of TV shows starring and made by Indigenous talent, "Reservation Dogs" and "Rutherford Falls" and the film "Prey."

RUNNINGWATER: The moment we're having now is something that she and our filmmaking community had always dreamed of 50 years ago.

DEL BARCO: Sacheen Littlefeather's 1973 speech is featured at the Academy's museum, where she'll be the guest of honor at an event next month. It's billed as an evening of conversation, reflection, healing and celebration. Mandalit del Barco, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

As an arts correspondent based at NPR West, Mandalit del Barco reports and produces stories about film, television, music, visual arts, dance and other topics. Over the years, she has also covered everything from street gangs to Hollywood, police and prisons, marijuana, immigration, race relations, natural disasters, Latino arts and urban street culture (including hip hop dance, music, and art). Every year, she covers the Oscars and the Grammy awards for NPR, as well as the Sundance Film Festival and other events. Her news reports, feature stories and photos, filed from Los Angeles and abroad, can be heard on All Things Considered, Morning Edition, Weekend Edition, Alt.latino, and npr.org.