The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has formally apologized to Sacheen Littlefeather, the Native American woman who famously took to the Oscars stage in 1973 on behalf of Marlon Brando and refused to accept the Best Actor prize in protest against Hollywood's depictions of Indigenous people.
Littlefeather, now 75, was heckled and subjected to racist abuse from the audience during her speech, recalling later that Western film star John Wayne had to be restrained from rushing the stage to attack her. She said she was essentially blacklisted as an actor after the incident.
"The abuse you endured because of this statement was unwarranted and unjustified," then–academy president David Rubin wrote in a letter to Littlefeather on June 18, which was shared with media on Monday. "The emotional burden you have lived through and the cost to your own career in our industry are irreparable. For too long the courage you showed has been unacknowledged. For this, we offer both our deepest apologies and our sincere admiration."
The apology was made in conjunction with an invitation for Littlefeather, who is of Apache and Yaqui descent, to appear as a featured guest on Sept. 17 in a special event at the new Academy Museum of Motion Pictures in Los Angeles.
“Regarding the Academy’s apology to me, we Indians are very patient people — it’s only been 50 years! We need to keep our sense of humor about this at all times. It’s our method of survival,” Littlefeather said in a statement. "This is 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.”
Littlefeather was just 26 when she appeared onstage on behalf of Brando, who won for his performance as Vito Corleone in The Godfather. In the event of his win, he had asked her not to touch the statue and to read a pages-long statement on his behalf. In it, Brando criticized Native American stereotypes in popular entertainment and drew attention to the 1973 Wounded Knee standoff between indigenous people and the US Marshals Service.
But producers warned her that if she exceeded 60 seconds she would be arrested by their security, so instead she improvised short remarks that were interrupted by boos and some making "tomahawk" gestures.
“[Brando] very regretfully cannot accept this very generous award, and the reasons for this being are the treatment of American Indians today by the film industry — excuse me — and on television in movie reruns, and also with recent happenings at Wounded Knee," she said.
She subsequently read Brando's text to reporters backstage.
In giving the historic speech, Littlefeather also became the first Native American woman to stand on the Oscars stage.
She told the Hollywood Reporter, which was first to publish Monday's news, that she cried several minutes after first being read the apology letter almost a half-century since the famous incident.
"Yes, there’s an apology that’s due," she said. "As my friends in the Native community said, it’s long overdue."
Below is Rubin's letter to Littlefeather in full:
June 18, 2022
Dear Sacheen Littlefeather,
I write to you today a letter that has been a long time coming on behalf of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, with humble acknowledgment of your experience at the 45th Academy Awards.
As you stood on the Oscars stage in 1973 to not accept the Oscar on behalf of Marlon Brando, in recognition of the misrepresentation and mistreatment of Native American people by the film industry, you made a powerful statement that continues to remind us of the necessity of respect and the importance of human dignity.
The abuse you endured because of this statement was unwarranted and unjustified. The emotional burden you have lived through and the cost to your own career in our industry are irreparable. For too long the courage you showed has been unacknowledged. For this, we offer both our deepest apologies and our sincere admiration.
We cannot realize the Academy's mission to "inspire imagination and connect the world through cinema" without a commitment to facilitating the broadest representation and inclusion reflective of our diverse global population.
Today, nearly 50 years later, and with the guidance of the Academy’s Indigenous Alliance, we are firm in our commitment to ensuring indigenous voices—the original storytellers—are visible, respected contributors to the global film community. We are dedicated to fostering a more inclusive, respectful industry that leverages a balance of art and activism to be a driving force for progress.
We hope you receive this letter in the spirit of reconciliation and as recognition of your essential role in our journey as an organization. You are forever respectfully engrained in our history.
With warmest regards,
President, Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences
Correction: David Rubin is the former president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. A previous version of this post described him as the current president.