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Academy apologises to Native American actress Sacheen Littlefeather

Sacheen Littlefeather declines Marlon Brando's Oscar
Sacheen Littlefeather declines Marlon Brando's Oscar   -   Copyright  Bettmann / Getty Images   -  
By David Mouriquand  with AFP

Better late than never…

Almost 50 years after she was booed on the Oscars stage for declining Marlon Brando's award on his behalf in protest at the film industry's treatment of Native Americans, Sacheen Littlefeather has received an apology from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

Littlefeather, who is Apache and Yaqui, was heckled by some members of the audience at the 1973 Academy Awards while explaining in her powerful statement why an absent Brando could not accept his best actor Oscar for The Godfather

Littlefeather became the first Native American woman to ever take the stage at the Academy Awards, and was also threatened with arrest and physical assault.

Two instructions were given to her on the night: Brando asked her not to touch the Oscar statuette, and Oscars producer Howard Koch told her not to run over 60 seconds for her speech or she would be arrested by security.

John Wayne, who was backstage at the time, was reportedly furious, with a number of witnesses describing how he needed to be restrained.

The 1973 ceremony coincided with the American Indian Movement (AIM)’s two-month occupation of Wounded Knee in South Dakota. The Wounded Knee Occupation began on February 27, 1973, when approximately 200 Oglala Lakota and followers of AIM seized and occupied the town of Wounded Knee, on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.

Sacheen Littlefeather declines Marlon Brando's Oscar

Aftermath of a historic speech

In the years since, Littlefeather has said she's been mocked, discriminated against and personally attacked for her brief Academy Awards appearance.

"The abuse you endured because of this statement was unwarranted and unjustified," said the apology letter from then-Academy president David Rubin.

He wrote that the emotional burden and the cost to Littlefeather's career in our industry is "irreparable."

"For too long the courage you showed has been unacknowledged. For this, we offer both our deepest apologies and our sincere admiration," the letter said.

The Academy released the letter as it announced that Littlefeather, now 75, has been invited to speak at its film museum in Los Angeles on September 17. The upcoming event is described as a "very special program of conversation, reflection, healing, and celebration."

The museum, which opened last September, has pledged to confront the Oscars' "problematic history" including racism. One display already tackles the harassment of Littlefeather.

Sacheen Littlefeather's reaction

"Regarding the Academy's apology to me, we Indians are very patient people — it's only been 50 years!" Littlefeather said in a statement.

"We need to keep our sense of humor about this at all times. It's our method of survival," said Littlefeather, describing the upcoming event as "a dream come true."

"It is profoundly heartening to see how much has changed since I did not accept the Academy Award 50 years ago. I am so proud of each and every person who will appear on stage," she added.

The fact that the Academy is beginning to openly wrestle with its problematic past is a step forward, and hopefully more initiatives will be taken to discuss white saviour narratives, the visibility of minorities on screen and broader representation for Indigenous storytellers.