The Oscars are typically a night filled with glitz and glamour, but sometimes a star will use their time in the spotlight to make impactful political statements. On the main stage, Leonardo DiCaprio has addressed climate change, Patricia Arquette the ongoing issue of equal pay, and Spike Lee the importance of voting, among other moments. And with millions tuning in to the ceremony every year, that’s a lot of eyes and ears on your speech.
One of the most controversial and memorable political moments in Oscars history occurred back in 1973, when Marlon Brando won the best-actor award for his performance in The Godfather. Instead of accepting his trophy, he used the moment as a form of protest. Brando enlisted Sacheen Littlefeather, an Indigenous (Apache and Yaqui) actor and activist, to appear on his behalf and to refuse his Oscar onstage—a bold move that shocked the 85 million viewers at home as well as the audience. Brando and Littlefeather wanted to denounce Hollywood’s stereotypical depiction of Indigenous people in film and television, and the actor felt he could not accept the award until change happened within the industry.
Brando’s award was announced, and Littlefeather then ascended to the main stage wearing a fringed buckskin dress adorned with beadwork (many traditional Apache dresses feature these details). She then politely declined the statuette from presenter Roger Moore. “I’m Apache and…I’m representing Marlon Brando this evening, and he has asked me to tell you in a very long speech that I cannot share with you presently, because of time…[that] he very regretfully cannot accept this very generous award,” she said. “And the reasons for this being are the treatment of American Indians today by the film industry.” Littlefeather became the first person in the ceremony’s 45-year history to use the Oscars stage for such a statement.
Littlefeather’s speech was met with a mixture of claps and boos, but was well timed. Just a month before the Oscars, Occupy Wounded Knee had occurred, where 200 Oglala Lakota (Sioux) activists seized control of Wounded Knee, South Dakota, and took the town’s residents hostage, demanding that the U.S. government honor their treaties established in the 19th and early-20th centuries. The movement then resulted in a 71-day siege, where armed police surrounded Wounded Knee and eventually two Native activists lost their lives. The media at the time often referred to Native activists as dangerous, especially after the events at Wounded Knee. With her speech, Littlefeather hoped to showcase that Indigenous activism is rooted in a simple desire for equality and fairness. “I beg that…in the future, our hearts and our understandings will meet with love and generosity,” she concluded.
Love and generosity certainly did not come Littlefeather’s way after the headline-making Oscars statement. Despite being an Indigenous woman herself, some felt that she had played the role of a Native American for the sake of a publicity stunt, and reports even surfaced that Littlefeather had rented her buckskin dress for the affair (a claim that hasn’t been confirmed). Actor John Wayne reportedly said of the moment, “If [Brando] had something to say, he should have appeared that night and stated his views instead of taking some little unknown girl and dressing her up in an Indian outfit.” Brando himself told Dick Cavett that he wished he had made the statement himself, saying, “I was distressed that people should have booed and whistled and stomped, even though perhaps it was directed at myself. They should have at least had the courtesy to listen to her.”
Almost five decades later, Littlefeather’s speech at the Oscars remains one of the ceremony’s most memorable appearances of all time. Unfortunately, not much has changed in Hollywood in terms of Indigenous representation: Wes Studi is the only Native actor to ever win an Oscar, though Taika Waititi became the first Indigenous director to win a screenwriting Oscar last year for Jojo Rabbit. But the industry does seem to be making strides forward, especially with the rise of Indigenous film festivals like ImagineNative and Sundance’s Native & Indigenous Program. And we can all thank Littlefeather’s unforgettable cameo for first igniting this important conversation. She was ahead of her time.