Sacheen Littlefeather, the Native American actress and activist who declined Marlon Brando’s best actor Oscar in 1973, has died, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announced Sunday night. She was 75.
The academy announced Littlefeather’s death on its Twitter account. No cause of death was immediately given but multiple news outlets reported that Littlefeather had been suffering from breast cancer.
Born Marie Louise Cruz on Nov. 14, 1946 in Salinas, Calif., Littlefeather later changed her name in her 20s as she explored her Native American heritage and became an activist.
On March 27, 1973, she provided one of the most dramatic moments in Oscar history. As Brando’s name was read for winning best actor for his role in The Godfather, Littlefeather took to the stage wearing moccasins and a buckskin dress to politely offer Brando’s regrets for refusing the award because of Hollywood’s treatment and portrayal of Native Americans.
Her speech to decline the Oscar on behalf of Brando was met by a mixture of boos and cheers. She said she saw the actor John Wayne being restrained from rushing the stage while she was on, The Los Angeles Times reported.
This past August, NPR’s Mandalit Del Barco reported on an interview that Littlefeather gave to member station KQED in 2020 about the speech and its fallout.
“People were making money off of that racism of the Hollywood Indian. Of course, they’re going to boo. They don’t want their evening interrupted.”
Littlefeather said she was escorted offstage at the Oscars by a team of security guards. She said that for years Hollywood boycotted her, calling it being red listed.
Earlier this year and nearly 50 years later, the academy officially apologized to Littlefeather for the abuse she subsequently endured because of her Oscars appearance. In a June letter from former academy President David Rubin, the academy the “unwarranted and unjustified” abuse she endured.
Brando later acknowledged regret for the position he had put Littlefeather in, according to The Los Angeles Times. “I was distressed that people should have booed and whistled and stomped, even though perhaps it was directed at myself,” he told then-talk show host Dick Cavett. “They should have at least had the courtesy to listen to her.”