And maybe Marlon Brando
Will be there by the fire
We'll sit and talk of Hollywood
And the good things there for hire
And the Astrodome and the first teepee
Marlon Brando, Pocahontas and me
Neil Young, "Pocahontas"
Who was Sacheen Littlefeather? Was she Brando's creation, as pingouin suggests; was she a "fake" Indian, as is reported on many websites; or was she a woman trying to promote a cause she believed in?
The most common urban myth is that she is "really" a Latina actress named Maria Cruz, who was born in 1947 in California and sent by Brando to refuse his Oscar. pingouin takes this story to its logical conclusion, claiming that Marlon Brando created her and that she was an art piece that he performed. Well, not quite.
Sacheen Littlefeather was born Maria Cruz in 1947, but beyond that not much about her life conforms to the rumours. Her mother was white and her father part Apache, part Yaqui. She was born on a reserve in Arizona into conditons typical of such environments: her parents were very poor, her father physically and sexually abused her, and she attempted suicide at age 9. Abandoned by her parents, she was shipped to California to be raised by grandparents, a white couple who were so determined to make young Maria white that they gave her a nose job to make her look more Caucasian.
But Maria remembered her childhood on the reserve and was drawn to American Indian radicalism, which was being galvanized at the time by militant actions such as the 1969 occupation of Alcatraz Island in San Fransisco. She got a job at an underground radio station and devoted her time to activism and show business (modelling and acting), renaming herself Sacheen Littlefeather. Ah, the sixties!
She worked as a fundraiser for the Native American Action Commitee, attracting Hollywood radicals like Jane Fonda, Jon Voigt, and Sidney Poitier to the cause. She figured Brando, a well-known non-conformist bad-ass who had already spoken out about aboriginal rights, would be a natural supporter. (He had appeared at demonstrations in support of native fishing rights in Washington state in 1964.) So in 1971 she wrote him a letter of introduction, wisely slipping some of her modelling photos into the envelope. Eight months later, he called her.
Brando was 48 years old at the time, and after something of a slump in his career was back on top with his controversial role in Last Tango in Paris and an Oscar nomination for The Godfather. Littlefeather began spending time at Brando's reclusive estate on Mulholland Drive; she was a beautiful young woman and he was a randy old man and speculation was that they were having an affair, though both have always denied it. Whatever the truth of that matter, they were certainly plotting an event to promote the native American cause. She now recalls that she rarely saw him in person; he preferred to speak into a phone in his bedroom; she would use the extension in the living room and the two would talk for hours about politics, history, and culture.
Finally, almost a year after they first met, they decided that Littlefeather would attend the Oscar ceremony in Brando's place. She wore an antique buckskin dress and beaded hairpieces - appearing as a stereotypical Indian girl - and brought a 15-page statement written by Brando explaining his reasons why he was refusing the award, should he actually be the winner. He fussed over the speech till the very last second, so that Littlefeather arrived late and was whisked on stage within a few minutes.
When Brando's name was announced, the audience cheered, but they soon started to boo as Littlefeather appeared. Liv Ullman and Roger Moore were to present the award to Brando, and a famous photo shows them looking completely nonplussed as Littlefeather holds out her hand to decline the statuette. (Moore was so freaked out by the whole thing that he took the little gold guy with him to Mexico before realizing he still had it.) Littlefeather had been forbidden to read Brando's full speech by producer Howard Koch ("If you try, I'll cut you off the air", he apparently hissed at her), so she made a short statement:
Hello. My name is Sacheen Littlefeather. I am an Apache and I am the president of the National Native American Affirmative Image Committee.
I'm representing Marlon Brando this evening and he has asked me to tell you, in a very long speech which I cannot share with you presently - because of time - but I will be glad to share with the press afterward, that he very regretfully cannot accept this very generous award. And the reason for this being the treatment of American Indians today by the film industry and on television in movie re-runs, and also the recent happenings at Wounded Knee.
I beg at this time that I have not intruded upon this evening and that we will, in the future… our hearts and our understanding will meet with love and generosity.
Thank you on behalf of Marlon Brando.
Then she went backstage and read Brando's full speech to the press. It included the phrase, "I thought perhaps I could have been of better use if I went to Wounded Knee."
At the time Wounded Knee was the site of a siege staged by the militant American Indian Movement (AIM) to protest the shocking alcoholism, poverty, crime, and suicide rates on the Pine Ridge reservation. The location was chosen carefully: this was a highly symbolic place to native Americans, for in 1890 the US Army had massacred 350 Lakota Sioux men, women and children there. By March 27, 1973, when Littlefeather was appearing at the Oscar ceremony, AIM and their supporters had been holed up at Wounded Knee for four weeks, engaged in frequent gunfights with federal militia, FBI marksmen, and native police. But the weary warriors heard what had happened and shot off rounds into the sky with joy, imagining that Brando's appearance at Wounded Knee would rally public sympathy to their cause.
After her speech Littlefeather returned in the limousine to Brando's house and waited to go with him to Wounded Knee. Brando did leave his house that night, but his destination was not Wounded Knee, but his exclusive Tahitian retreat. While Hollywood mocked him and his "fake Indian princess," the FBI tracked down Littlefeather - who had gone into hiding, abandoned by Brando and attacked in the press - and, she claims now, "whitelisted" her, quashing her fledgling movie career.
Meanwhile, the siege dragged on. Finally on May 8, with two dead and twelve wounded, the protestors surrendered. None of their conditions of surrender were met.
Today Littlefeather lives in San Francisco, where she coordinates for the Archdiocese the "Kateri Circle," a syncretic blend of native spirituality and Catholicism that supports the canonization of Kateri Tekakwitha, a Mohawk/Algoquian Christian woman who lived from 1656 to 1680 and who was beatified in 1980.
Shoot the Sun Down (1981)
Johnny Firecloud (1975)
Freebie and the Bean (1974)
Trial of Billy Jack (1974)
Il Consigliori (1973)
Laughing Policeman (1973)
"Oscar snub couldn't heal Wounded Knee" Toronto Star newspaper, March 8, 2003
Filmography from IMDb