Backstage at the 1973 Oscars: Sacheen Littlefeather holding the speech Marlon Brando had asked her to give.

Associated Press

Backstage at the 1973 Oscars: Sacheen Littlefeather holding the speech Marlon Brando had asked her to give.

The Oscars’ All-Time Most Outrageous Moment—and What It Meant

Tonight is Oscar night, and amid all the chatter about red carpet looks and favorites to win, there is always some reminiscing about memorable ceremonies past, and particularly which moments will never be forgotten. 

The ceremony has seen a streaker (behind David Niven, 1974), and old dude doing pushups (Jack Palance, 1992) and a famous case of surprisingly low self-esteem (Sally Field, “You like me,” 1984) — but nothing touches Sacheen Littlefeather’s stand-in appearance for Marlon Brando. Brando, long a friend to Native American causes, declined his Best Actor Oscar for his performance as Don Corleone in The Godfather, and sent the young actress and activist to deliver a statement in his stead. Brando had tasked Littlefeather with making a lengthy speech that would never have fit into the allotted time; the remarks Littlefeather did manage to share (interrupted at one point by simultaneous boos and applause) were eloquent and humble. Here is a clip:

Littlefeather brought up two points. One was Hollywood’s long tradition of portraying Indians in a negative light, as evildoers or savages, ever the bad guys to be bested by virtuous cowboys and cavalry — and to those who’d argue, in 1973, that we were living in more enlightened times, Littlefeather mentioned re-runs shown on TV, racist propaganda that was still being broadcast despite some progress in the contemporary film industry. (One might wonder what Marlon Brando would say about the Encore Western channel, which continues to show movies that have been condemned as racist.) Littlefeather also mentioned a then-current event that would come to be known as the Wounded Knee Incident — a takeover of the town of Wounded Knee on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation by Oglala Lakota and American Indian Movement followers. The action was tied to the Pine Ridge population’s attempts to remove Chairman Richard Wilson from office, but what ensued was a standoff between armed Indians and U.S. government forces that rallied American Indians nationwide and elicited sympathy from many non-Natives.

But what of the speech — what did Brando want Littlefeather to say? Read on…

The speech Brando had wished Littlefeather to give was later printed in the New York Times. Here is the text:

For 200 years we have said to the Indian people who are fighting for their land, their life, their families and their right to be free: ”Lay down your arms, my friends, and then we will remain together. Only if you lay down your arms, my friends, can we then talk of peace and come to an agreement which will be good for you.”

When they laid down their arms, we murdered them. We lied to them. We cheated them out of their lands. We starved them into signing fraudulent agreements that we called treaties which we never kept. We turned them into beggars on a continent that gave life for as long as life can remember. And by any interpretation of history, however twisted, we did not do right. We were not lawful nor were we just in what we did. For them, we do not have to restore these people, we do not have to live up to some agreements, because it is given to us by virtue of our power to attack the rights of others, to take their property, to take their lives when they are trying to defend their land and liberty, and to make their virtues a crime and our own vices virtues.

But there is one thing which is beyond the reach of this perversity and that is the tremendous verdict of history. And history will surely judge us. But do we care? What kind of moral schizophrenia is it that allows us to shout at the top of our national voice for all the world to hear that we live up to our commitment when every page of history and when all the thirsty, starving, humiliating days and nights of the last 100 years in the lives of the American Indian contradict that voice?

It would seem that the respect for principle and the love of one’s neighbor have become dysfunctional in this country of ours, and that all we have done, all that we have succeeded in accomplishing with our power is simply annihilating the hopes of the newborn countries in this world, as well as friends and enemies alike, that we’re not humane, and that we do not live up to our agreements.

Perhaps at this moment you are saying to yourself what the hell has all this got to do with the Academy Awards? Why is this woman standing up here, ruining our evening, invading our lives with things that don’t concern us, and that we don’t care about? Wasting our time and money and intruding in our homes.

I think the answer to those unspoken questions is that the motion picture community has been as responsible as any for degrading the Indian and making a mockery of his character, describing his as savage, hostile and evil. It’s hard enough for children to grow up in this world. When Indian children watch television, and they watch films, and when they see their race depicted as they are in films, their minds become injured in ways we can never know.

Recently there have been a few faltering steps to correct this situation, but too faltering and too few, so I, as a member in this profession, do not feel that I can as a citizen of the United States accept an award here tonight. I think awards in this country at this time are inappropriate to be received or given until the condition of the American Indian is drastically altered. If we are not our brother’s keeper, at least let us not be his executioner.

I would have been here tonight to speak to you directly, but I felt that perhaps I could be of better use if I went to Wounded Knee to help forestall in whatever way I can the establishment of a peace which would be dishonorable as long as the rivers shall run and the grass shall grow.

I would hope that those who are listening would not look upon this as a rude intrusion, but as an earnest effort to focus attention on an issue that might very well determine whether or not this country has the right to say from this point forward we believe in the inalienable rights of all people to remain free and independent on lands that have supported their life beyond living memory.

Thank you for your kindness and your courtesy to Miss Littlefeather. Thank you and good night.

Brando later shared his thoughts with Dick Cavett — stay tuned for a video clip…

Just how much “courtesy” the audience had shown Littlefeather on Oscar night is debatable, but in the days, weeks, and years that followed she became a target. Her authenticity was challenged, and as she told ICTMN in 2012, she was blacklisted, thus bringing her acting career to a premature end.

That ICTMN article was written in response to yet another smear, 39 years later, from comedian Dennis Miller, who decribed now-Senator Elizabeth Warren as “about as much Indian as that stripper chick Brando sent to pick up his Oscar for The Godfather.” The “stripper” comment was probably a reference to a photo shoot Littlefeather did with nine other Native women in 1972. Playboy had decided not to use the pictorial (titled “Ten Little Indians,” of course) due to the Wounded Knee Incident, but after Littlefeather’s sudden rise to fame the magazine did publish some photos of her in its October 1973 issue.

Littlefeather, who has continued her activism if not her acting career, is featured in the current issue of Entertainment Weekly, and she seems at peace with the life she has lived.“I promised myself a long time ago that I would lead an interesting life. … 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.”

John Wayne’s reaction to Littlefeather’s speech was, reportedly, “If [Brando] had something to say, 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.” Though his dismissive words about Littlefeather are unpleasant, the Duke did have a point — if Brando wanted to say something about the treatment of American Indians, why didn’t Brando himself say it? A private man known for avoiding interviews and publicity, Brando did later appear on the Dick Cavett Show and share his thoughts on the situation. Here’s an abridged video:

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The Oscars' All-Time Most Outrageous Moment—and What It Meant

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