2 Weeks After Academy Apology, Littlefeather Dies at 75

Native American actor received 50-year-old mea culpa after she turned down Brando Oscar in '73
By Jenn Gidman,  Newser Staff
Posted Oct 3, 2022 8:03 AM CDT
She Declined Brando's Oscar for Him, Took Racist Heat
Sacheen Littlefeather appears at the Academy Awards ceremony to announce that Marlon Brando was declining his Oscar as best actor for his role in "The Godfather," on March 27, 1973.   (AP Photo, File)

Last month, Sacheen Littlefeather received a mea culpa 50 years in the making from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which apologized for how she was treated when she rebuffed a 1973 Oscar for Marlon Brando. Now, just over two weeks later, the Native American activist and actress has died, at age 75, per the Hollywood Reporter. Littlefeather died Sunday at her home in Novato, Calif., with loved ones by her side, according to a statement from her caretaker. Although no cause of death has been given, CNN notes Littlefeather revealed in January 2021 that she had stage 4 breast cancer that had metastasized. The Academy confirmed her death in a Sunday evening tweet.

The Apache and Yaqui actress began her acting career after receiving a full scholarship to San Francisco's American Conservatory Theater soon after college, but she struggled to find roles in Hollywood. "Americans liked the blonde Sandra Dee look," she said, per THR. It was the excerpted speech she gave on behalf of Brando on March 27, 1973, who'd been given the best actor award for The Godfather, that made her famous. In it, she explained he was turning down the honor due to "the treatment of American Indians today by the film industry ... and on television in movie reruns, and also with recent happenings at Wounded Knee." Littlefeather's remarks were met with boos and racist heckles such as "tomahawk chops," per THR. Littlefeather was effectively blacklisted from Hollywood after her speech, and she instead went on to earn a degree in holistic health, minoring in Native American medicine.

She leveraged that education to write a health column for an Oklahoma tribal newspaper, teach at an Arizona hospital, and work with AIDS patients in the Bay Area alongside Mother Teresa. She also stayed active in the arts, co-founding the National American Indian Performing Arts Registry and serving as an advocate for Native American inclusion in films and TV. She appeared to know the end was near at the ceremony in September that offered her the Academy's apology. "I'm crossing over soon to the spirit world. And you know, I'm not afraid to die," she said, per THR. She also was at peace with how she'd spent her time on Earth. "As I look back on my life, I look at it with pride that I did something that may have made a difference," Littlefeather wrote in her January 2021 Facebook post that announced her cancer status. Much more here. (Read more Sacheen Littlefeather stories.)

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