Brando had won the best actor award for his role as Mafia boss Vito Corleone in The Godfather and Littlefeather had known the actor for about a year when she stepped onto the stage of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion on his behalf.
She went on to appear in a half-dozen movies, with small roles in Westerns, but said she was blacklisted – or “redlisted”, as she put it – by Hollywood studios who refused to hire her because of her Oscars appearance.
“I spoke from my heart,” she told the Associated Press a few days after the ceremony. “Those words were written in blood, perhaps my own blood. I felt about like Christ carrying the weight of the cross on his shoulders.”
Many Native American activists celebrated her as a hero. And Native American filmmakers and producers, including Bird Runningwater, also saw Littlefeather as a trailblazer, a crucial link in a movement toward more sensitive and accurate depictions of Native American life in television.
In June, then-Academy President David Rubin sent her a “statement of reconciliation”, writing that the harassment and discrimination she had suffered over the years “was unwarranted and unjustified”.
“All we were asking, and I was asking, was, ‘Let us be employed. Let us be ourselves. Let us play ourselves in films. Let us be a part of your industry, producing, directing, writing,’ ” she said in an August interview with A.frame about the night she took the Oscars stage.
Littlefeather was born Marie Louise Cruz in Salinas, California, on November 14, 1946. Her mother, a leather stamper and pianist, was white; her father, a saddle maker and painter, was White Mountain Apache and Yaqui.
Littlefeather was raised primarily by her maternal grandparents and said she was bullied in school for her dark skin and straight black hair. As a teenager, she attempted suicide and was hospitalised for a year, following a mental breakdown that she attributed to her struggle to reconcile her white and Native American identities.
By her early 20s, she had moved to San Francisco and become involved with the American Indian Movement, joining other urban Indians in reconnecting with their ancestry and campaigning for Native American rights. She began using a new name, Sacheen, and supported herself as a model, winning the Miss American Vampire beauty pageant in 1970 as part of a promotion for a Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer horror film.
She also appeared in television commercials and was the public service director at a San Francisco radio station. As she told it, she met Brando through her neighbour Francis Ford Coppola, the director of The Godfather, who promised to pass the actor a letter she had written about his interest in Native American issues. Their relationship culminated in Brando calling her the day before the Oscars to invite her to attend the ceremony on his behalf.
By the time of her Oscars speech, she was married to Michael Rubio, an engineer. She later married Charles Koshiway Johnston, her partner of 32 years, who died in 2021. Information on survivors was not immediately available.
The Washington Post
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