Sacheen Littlefeather – a Native American actress, model, and civil rights activist best known for the historic appearance she made at the 45th Academy Awards – has died at the age of 75.
Her passing was confirmed by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. In a statement shared with The Hollywood Reporter, a caretaker of Littlefeather’s said she died at noon on Sunday (October 2), surrounded by loved ones at her home in the Northern California city of Novato. An exact cause of death was not confirmed, however Littlefeather had long been open about her various struggles with ill health.
Sacheen Littlefeather, Native American civil rights activist who famously declined Marlon Brando’s 1973 Best Actor Academy Award, dies at 75. pic.twitter.com/OlpsoItlCw
— The Academy (@TheAcademy) October 3, 2022
In 2018, she developed stage four breast cancer, which evolved from a prior diagnosis that she’d been in remission from since 2012. Last year, she told The Guardian that her cancer had metastasised to her right lung, leaving her terminally ill.
Just two weeks ago, at a ceremony held by the Academy in Littlefeather’s honour, she acknowledged that her passing would be imminent: “I’m crossing over soon to the spirit world. And you know, I’m not afraid to die. Because we come from a we/us/our society. We don’t come from a me/I/myself society. And we learn to give away from a very young age. When we are honoured, we give.”
That ceremony came after Littlefeather publicly reconciled with the Academy, 49 years after her controversial demonstration of protest at the 1973 Oscars. There, she took to the stage to reject the Best Actor award on behalf of Marlon Brando, who’d won the title for his work in The Godfather. At the time, Brando boycotted the win on account of Hollywood’s misrepresentation of Native Americans, and sent Littlefeather to the ceremony in his place.
Her appearance during marked the first time a Native American woman had taken to the Oscars stage, but her presence was quickly met with heckling and boos from the audience. “[Brando] very regretfully cannot accept this very generous award,” Littlefeather said during the speech, “the reasons for this being the treatment of American Indians today by the film industry and on television.”
In August of this year, the Academy made public a letter sent to Littlefeather, apologising for the “abuse [she] endured” in the wake of the speech. Written by Academy president David Rubin in June, the letter acknowledged that the reception to Littlefeather – both during the ceremony and among Hollywood in the years since – “was unwarranted and unjustified”.
“The emotional burden you have lived through and the cost to your own career in our industry are irreparable. For too long the courage you showed has been unacknowledged. For this, we offer both our deepest apologies and our sincere admiration,” Rubin wrote.
In a public response shared by Littlefeather, the actress and activist said: “We Indians are very patient people – it’s only been 50 years!”
She went on to address the letter’s pledge to ensure Indigenous storytellers are more broadly represented: “This is a dream come true. It is profoundly heartening to see how much has changed since I did not accept the Academy Award 50 years ago.”
Born on November 14, 1946, Littlefeather became involved in the activism of Native American rights in 1969 – the same year she moved to San Francisco to pursue a modelling career – when she joined the United Bay Indian Council.
The following year, she participated in the 19-month occupation of Alcatraz. It was there that she adopted the name Sacheen Littlefeather, with ‘Sacheen’ being the name her father would call her before he died, and ‘Littlefeather’ referring to an actual feather she would wear in her hair.
Littlefeather began acting the same year she appeared at the ’73 Oscars. Her first role was a cameo in the Italian-Spanish crime film Il Consigliori (Counselor At Crime in English). Her first American film was the neo-noir thriller The Laughing Policeman, also released in 1973. Like her role in the following year’s Freebie And The Bean, her appearance in the film went uncredited.
Her first credited role came in 1974 with The Trial Of Billy Jack, in which she starred as Patsy Littlejohn. She’d go on to star in three more films – Johnny Firecloud and Winterhawk in 1975, then Shoot The Sun Down in 1978 – before retiring from the industry. She did, however, appear in two documentaries: Real Injun in 2009, and a 2018 short based on her own life, Sacheen: Breaking The Silence.