It was one of the most memorable moments in the history of the Academy Awards—and one of the most controversial: Awarded the Best Actor Oscar for his instantly iconic performance as Don Vito Corleone in The Godfather in 1973, Marlon Brando sent an unknown 26-year-old Native American activist and aspiring actress named Sacheen Littlefeather up to the stage to refuse the statuette on his behalf. As the stunned audience erupted with a confused mix of boos and applause, Littlefeather explained that Brando was regretfully turning down the award to protest “the treatment of American Indians today by the film industry” and the ongoing siege of 200 American Indian Movement activists by armed authorities in Wounded Knee, S.D. “I beg at this time that I have not intruded upon this evening,” she concluded before leaving the stage, “and that we will, in the future, our hearts and our understandings will meet with love and generosity.”
In the wake of her appearance at the Oscars, though, Littlefeather received little respect from Hollywood and the mainstream media, let alone understanding, love, or generosity. Even as she was cheered by Native Americans for taking a civil rights stand, false stories soon spread claiming that she was not a real Native American, that she had rented her buckskin Oscar dress, that she was just a wannabe opportunistically trying to ride Brando’s coattails. “If [Brando] had something to say,” actor John Wayne groused dismissively, “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 expressed some misgivings a few months later about the position he’d put Littlefeather in: “I was distressed that people should have booed and whistled and stomped, even though perhaps it was directed at myself,” he told Dick Cavett. “They should have at least had the courtesy to listen to her.” Facing what she saw as an all-out campaign to discredit and blacklist her, Littlefeather soon abandoned any ambitions she’d had of an acting career and dropped almost entirely out of the public eye. Still, her Oscar notoriety never fully faded. Just last August, in an appearance on The Tonight Show, comedian Dennis Miller cracked about then-Senate candidate Elizabeth Warren, who’d claimed some Cherokee ancestry, “She’s about as much Indian as that stripper chick Brando sent to pick up his Oscar for The Godfather.”
For 40 years, Littlefeather has heard comments like this, and she’s rarely had the opportunity to tell her side of things. But in the new issue of Entertainment Weekly, on stands now, we caught up with her at her home in the San Francisco Bay Area to talk about her brush with Brando and the impact that one minute on the Oscar stage in front of 85 million people had on the rest of her life. “A lot of the stories I’ve read about myself, I don’t even recognize who they’re writing about,” says Littlefeather—who was born Marie Cruz to a white mother and an Apache and Yaqui Indian father (“I say I’m half Indian and half savage,” she jokes). “It’s just made-up stuff. And when you don’t have any way of combating that, it’s difficult to set the record straight.” Wryly funny and quick to laugh despite an ongoing battle with breast cancer, Littlefeather dismisses Miller’s recent crack about her as just the latest in a long string of insults she’s endured: “Boy, he is the unfunniest guy I’ve ever heard,” she says. “It goes back to the time of the Romans: If you didn’t like the message, you kill the messenger.”
But while she may have paid a price for being the messenger for Brando’s Oscar protest, Littlefeather has moved on. For the past four decades, she has worked to provide health-care education and advocacy in the Native American community, ministered to AIDS patients with Mother Teresa in the 1980s, and led a prayer circle devoted to the first Native American Catholic saint, Kateri Tekakwitha. She betrays no regrets about anything. “I promised myself a long time ago that I would lead an interesting life,” she says. “And that’s what I’ve done, Marlon Brando or no Marlon Brando…. I’m an elder now, coming to the end of my road. Now I am in a place of being a healer, if you will, of my own journey.”
For the full story on Sacheen Littlefeather—and our complete coverage of this year’s Oscar nominations—pick up the new issue of Entertainment Weekly, on stands today.