Boos from the crowd, racist gestures, threats, blacklisting, and even attempts on her life — these are some of the reactions that Sacheen Littlefeather faced after taking the stage at the 1973 Academy Awards.
In an in-depth interview published by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences this week, the activist and onetime aspiring actress reflected on her experiences in the wake of calling out Hollywood's treatment of Native American people.
Littlefeather, who delivered her famous speech while declining Marlon Brando's Best Actor award on his behalf, recalled being shot at by an unknown assailant while returning to Brando's home after the ceremony. Her speech, she said, "was met with such hostility and anger, and I nearly paid the price with my life as a result. When I went back to Marlon's house, there was an incident with people shooting at me. And there were two bullet holes that came through the doorway of where I was standing, and I was on the other side of it."
She added, "It's situations like this that make you really think, you know, what if, what if, what if? And yet, I was never allowed to tell my story. Never. Never. And now, 50 years or so later, and here we are for the first time."
Bettmann Archive/Getty Images Sacheen Littlefeather at the 1973 Oscars
Littlefeather's interview coincided with the Academy disclosing that it issued a formal apology to her in June over the way she was treated after her speech. The organization also announced that it is presenting "An Evening with Sacheen Littlefeather" next month, where she will reflect on that historic evening in 1973 and discuss the future of Indigenous communities in the film industry.
As seen in the video below, Littlefeather took the Oscars stage after Brando won for his role in The Godfather. She began by saying, "I'm Sacheen Littlefeather. I'm Marlon Brando's official representative here this evening. Unfortunately, he cannot receive this Academy Award because of the image of Native American Indian people in film and television today."
While on stage, Littlefeather recalled, she noticed John Wayne rushing toward her. She said in the Academy interview that Wayne "did not like what I was saying up at the podium. So, he came forth in a rage to physically assault and take me off the stage. And he had to be restrained by six security men in order for that not to happen."
Littlefeather also recalled how some members of the audience began making tomahawk chop motions with their hands, and others booed (as can be heard in video of the ceremony).
For all she endured, Littlefeather doesn't regret the fateful night.
"I knew that I paid the price of admission so that others could follow," she said. "That I had done something, that I was the first to make a statement, a political statement. The first Native American Indian woman, the first woman of color to ever make a statement at the Academy Awards, telling the truth about the way that it really is. Not the second, not the third, not the fourth, but the first one — and that will always historically be true."