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How far would you go to fight for civil rights?
Sacheen Littlefeather went as far as the Academy Awards.
It was March 27, 1973. The world was rapt. Roger Moore – the new James Bond – and actress Liv Ulmann had just announced the nominees for Best Actor, the most celebrated accolade of the film industry. They chorused the iconic line: “and the winner is…”
It was Marlon Brando, and well deserved, for his role in The Godfather.
But instead of Brando, a diminutive young woman wearing traditional Apache dress took the stage on his behalf.
Her name was Sacheen Littlefeather, and she was there to raise awareness about the rights of Indigenous people.
Born Marie Cruz in Salinas California in 1946, she was from a mixed-race, Apache-Caucasian, family at a time when most felt embarrassed to be “Indian.” But the 1960s, influenced by the growing Civil Rights movement, more Native-American voices were joining the protest against racism and discrimination by reclaiming their indigenous ancestry. Marie was one such voice. She embraced her Apache roots, taking the name to Sacheen Littlefeather.
In 1969, Sacheen joined a group of activists that piled onto boats in San Francisco en route to the defunct prison on Alcatraz Island. Their protest occupation, which lasted for fourteen months, was designed to force the government to acknowledge its treaties with native people, as well as its legacy of racism. The lack of fresh water and abusive government agents finally broke up the protest, but the Red Power movement had begun.
It peaked four years later, in 1973, in Wounded Knee, South Dakota. The occasion was the centennial anniversary of the genocidal massacre, when in 1873 the U.S. Cavalry murdered several hundred Lakota Sioux, half of them women and children. When the occupation went from peaceful to violent, the government banned the press from Wounded Knee, hoping the protest would go unnoticed by the nation.
But Marlon Brando noticed. He expressed support for the protest and offered his Oscar-bound ticket to the Native-American activist most willing to use the popular annual event as a platform to raise awareness about the historically despicable treatment of Indigenous people by the US government and authorities. Sacheen volunteered and was soon on her way to Los Angeles and her place in the history books.
Sacheen donned a traditional Apache outfit, rather than the stereotypical headdress of Hollywood movie fare. As she waited for her chance to speak, a male producer threatened to have her arrested if she spent more than 60 seconds on stage. When Brando's name was announced, Sacheen walked forward to politely decline the award on his behalf. She explained that Brando "very regretfully" refused the accolade because of "the treatment of American Indians today by the film industry" and the "recent happenings at Wounded Knee." The, she quietly left.
Americans in the 1970s were not accustomed to being publicly challenged by women; even less so by women of color, no matter how polite. Indeed, actor John Wayne was pinned by security guards to prevent him from physically dragging Sacheen off the stage.
In the days that followed, Sacheen faced public humiliation for not being a "real Indian." Many people claimed she was a "Mexican actress" and had rented her Apache clothing from a costume store. Others labeled her a stripper: a year earlier, Sacheen, like so many aspiring young actresses in the 1970s, had posed for Playboy. Hollywood blacklisted, bringing an end to her movie career.
Coretta Scott King, widow of Martin Luther King Jr., and Cesar Chavez publicly supported Sacheen, however, telling her – and the world – that she had done the right thing.
Sacheen responded to the barrage of bigotry and opposition with increased activism. In the 1980s, she helped Mother Theresa minister to AIDS victims. She was one of the founding members of American Indian AIDS Institute of San Francisco. She wrote for many Indigenous newspapers, and became a producer of Native American films, winning an Emmy in 1984.
Sacheen Littlefeather continues to stand up for the rights of Native Americans today. She has done so, in and outside of the spotlight, her whole life. That's why she's a Time Traveler Tours #HistoryHero. Many thanks to Becca McCarthy of Gatineau, Quebec, Canada, for bringing her to our attention.