Sacheen Littlefeather’s Native American Heritage Disputed in Column Featuring Interviews With Her Sisters

Three weeks following the death of Sacheen Littlefeather, the activist who famously accepted Marlon Brando’s Oscar for “The Godfather” at the 1973 Academy Awards, a new column alleges that Littlefeather had been posing as a Native American through her life.

Published Saturday in the San Francisco Chronicle, the piece features quotes from Littlefeather’s sisters, Rosalind Cruz and Trudy Orlandi, who called the activist’s identity as a Native American a “lie.”

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Notably, several Native American writers and activists have denounced the Chronicle column on social media, saying that its writer, Jacqueline Keeler, has long-exercised a vendetta against Littlefeather, among other figures she calls “Pretendians.” They also say Littlefeather’s sisters thought they were of Native American ancestry until Keeler informed them they weren’t.

“Her desire to weed out Pretendians has led to a violent vendetta against genuinely reconnecting Natives who don’t meet colonial standards,” wrote CarlyMButton on Twitter.

Littlefeather, who died on Oct. 2 of breast cancer at the age of 75, first publicly claimed White Mountain Apache heritage, a tribe in Arizona, in the 1970s. According to the column, no tribal officials could provide records of Littlefeather or her family members being enrolled. Littlefeather also declared herself to be of Yaqui descent in later years. The Yaqui people come from both Arizona and from the Mexican state of Sonora.

READ MORE: Who Gets to Call Themselves Native? (Guest Column)

Littlefeather was born in Salinas, Ariz. under the name Maria Louise Cruz to parents Manuel Ybarra Cruz and Gertrude Barnitz. The columnist’s review of her father’s ancestry, where Littlefeather claimed Native heritage, found no ties to Native American nations in the U.S. Littlefeather’s heritage allegedly traced to territories that are now part of Mexico.

“It’s a lie,” Orlandi told the Chronicle. “My father was who he was. His family came from Mexico. And my dad was born in Oxnard.”

“It is a fraud,” Cruz said. “It’s disgusting to the heritage of the tribal people. And it’s just… insulting to my parents.”

Littlefeather’s sisters also disputed the activist’s claims of an impoverished background and “mentally ill” parents. Both sisters first learned of Littlefeather’s death through the internet; neither was invited to the funeral.

Keeler and representatives for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences were not immediately available for comment.

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