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Wednesday, Oct 05, 2022

Explained: 50 years after her Oscars protest, why the Academy has apologised to Sacheen Littlefeather

Sacheen Littlefeather, a Native American activist and actor, was booed off stage at the Oscars in 1973, when she appeared on behalf of Marlon Brando, who had won the best actor award for The Godfather.

Sacheen Littlefeather appears at the Academy Awards ceremony to announce that Marlon Brando was declining his Oscar as best actor for his role in "The Godfather," on March 27, 1973. (AP Photo, File)

Nearly 50 years after Native American activist and actor Sacheen Littlefeather was booed off stage at the Oscars for protesting against the misrepresentation of Native American tribes in the entertainment industry, the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences has apologised to her for the abuse she had to endure.

In a letter addressed to the actor, David Rubin, President of the Academy, called the abuse “unwarranted and unjustified”. He wrote, “The emotional burden you have lived through and the cost to your own career in our industry are irreparable.”

The Academy on Monday said it had invited Littlefeather for a “very special program of conversation, reflection, healing, and celebration” on September 17.

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“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 released by the Academy.

What happened to Sacheen Littlefeather at the Oscars?

In 1973, Littlefeather, then 26, became the first Native American woman to take the stage at the Academy Awards. Wearing a traditional buckskin dress, she appeared on behalf of Marlon Brando, who had won the best actor award for The Godfather. Brando had boycotted the award show that year to protest against the industry’s portrayal of the Native American tribes of the US.

In an iconic 60-second speech — the first political statement ever made at the Oscars — Littlefeather said that Brando could not accept the award because of “the treatment of American Indians today by the film industry”. In her speech, she addressed the stereotypes about her community that had been perpetuated by the entertainment industry and the Wounded Knee protests led by Native Americans in South Dakota.

“And the reasons for this being the treatment of American Indians today by the film industry and on television in movie re-runs, and also with recent happenings at Wounded Knee,” she had said.

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Her brief address was met with jeers and a smattering of applause from the audience.

In an interview with the BBC in 2020, Littlefeather said she was escorted off the stage by two security guards. Several people were seen using the ‘Tomahawk chop’ — a derogatory arm-waving gesture considered racist and dehumanising for Native American people.

Who are the Native Americans?

When European settlers first arrived in North America in the 15th century, the continent was occupied by Native American communities, each of which had their own distinct linguistic, cultural, social and economic traits. In the centuries that followed, as more European settlers began to expand their territory and invade native land, many of these communities were dislocated and in some cases even destroyed.

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The Europeans also brought with them new diseases that these communities had never dealt with before. Several large epidemics between the 17th and 18th centuries, including smallpox, killed as much as 90 per cent of their population, according to some estimates. Over-hunting and widespread land depletion also resulted in famines. During wars between colonial powers, many of these communities were forced into the global slave trade.

In the 19th century, many Native American communities were forcibly moved to reservations, often hundreds of miles away from their original homes. According to the US Census Bureau, over five million people in the US claim some sort of Native American identity.

Following the Merriam Report in 1928, which highlighted the atrocities faced by Native Americans, then-US president Franklin Roosevelt introduced the ‘Indian New Deal’. In 1934, the Indian Reorganization Act (IRA) became law, recognising limited sovereignty for several tribes and making it mandatory for councils to be elected to run reservations. But the law was widely criticised, including by members of the American Indian Movement (AIM).

In the 1950s, the US called for Native Americans to be forced to assimilate into white society. By 1960, 61 Native American tribes had been ‘terminated’, according to minorityrights.org. Under the 1956 Relocation Act funding plan, more than half of the US’ Native American population had been urbanised and assimilated to varying degrees, according to official records.

In 2004, the Senate and the House passed a joint resolution apologising to the Native Americans for years of official depredations.

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Even today, unemployment, illness, high rates of suicide and alcoholism continue to plague Native American communities.

What were the Wounded Knee protests?

About a month before the award show, on February 27, 1973, members of the AIM led around 200 Sioux Native Americans to the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, where they occupied Wounded Knee, the site where nearly 300 Sioux were massacred by the US Cavalry in 1890.

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For 71 days, the AIM protestors stood their ground, trading gunfire with federal officials who had surrounded the site. On May 8, the protestors surrendered after US officials promised to investigate their complaints. While two AIM leaders, Russell Means and Dennis Banks, were arrested, a federal judge dismissed the charges against them due to the government’s illegal handling of both evidence and witnesses during the stand-off.

Violence continued on the Pine Ridge reservation for years after the Wounded Knee protests. Ultimately, the AIM was disbanded in 1978.

First published on: 17-08-2022 at 10:22:42 am
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