Marlon Brando and Sacheen Littlefeather

By 1973, Marlon Brando was no newcomer to social causes. He had spoken publicly in the 1940s in support of the formation of a Jewish state, and subsequently for African–American civil rights and the Black Panther Party.

Brando was one of the most successful actors of the 1950s, with one Oscar and four other nominations. But in the 1960s his career had gone into decline, with expensive flops such as One–Eyed Jacks (1961), which he also directed, and Mutiny on the Bounty (1962). Despite his preternatural talent, Brando had become notorious for moodiness and demanding on–set behavior, as well as his tumultuous off–screen life. Francis Ford Coppola, the young director of The Godfather, had to fight (presumably against the producers) to get him cast in the coveted role of Vito Corleone. Brando won the role only after undergoing a screen test and cutting his fee to $250,000 – far less than those he had commanded a decade earlier.

The Godfather became a classic almost immediately on its release, and Brando rejuvenated his career with one of the most memorable screen performances of all time.

On 27 February 1973, approximately 200 Oglala Lakota and followers of the American Indian Movement (AIM) seized and occupied the town of Wounded Knee, South Dakota, on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. The protesters were incensed by the failure of impeachment procedures against their tribal president Richard Wilson, whom they accused of favouring friends and family in the awarding of jobs and suppressing political opponents with his private militia. They chose Wounded Knee for its symbolic value as the site of the massacre of Native Americans by US government forces in 1890. The town was besieged by US military forces; two Native Americans were shot and killed, and a US Marshal severely wounded, during the occupation.

At the 45th Oscars ceremony, Marlon Brando was the favourite to receive the award for Best Actor in a Leading Role. (The other nominees were Michael Caine and Laurence Olivier for Sleuth, Peter O'Toole for The Ruling Class, and the African–American actor Paul Winfield for Sounder.) The night before the ceremony, Brando announced that he would boycott the ceremony and that Sacheen Littlefeather, the President of the National Native American Affirmative Image Movement (AIM) would take his place.

Sacheen Littlefeather was born Marie Louise Cruz in Salinas, California, in 1946. Her mother was of French, German and Dutch descent, and her father was a Native American from the White Mountain Apache and Yaqui tribes. Marie had a troubled upbringing. She felt that her father didn't value women; "just being female was a drawback". Her mother, in contrast, was "a free spirit"; she left Marie to be brought up mainly by her grandparents.

In the time she did spend with her mother, Marie found that "It wasn't too good to be of mixed parentage." She realised that she was different when she found that "My mom used one restroom and I had to use the other."

It was at college that she really learned about being an Indian. She frequented the San Francisco Indian Center, and joined other urban Indians in occupying Alcatraz Island in 1969. She got to know elders, who took her and other urban Indians under their wings. She went on camps, learning the old ways of sweat lodges, the sacred pipe, how to skin a rabbit, and how to perform the traditional Indian dances. Her Navajo friends nicknamed her Sacheen – Little Bear.

She began acting as an escape from reality – with her grandmother's encouragement. She won a scholarship to the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco; this led to radio work and television ads. But mainstream acting roles failed to materialise; "Americans", she said, "liked the blonde Sandra Dee look."

She attended a shoot for a Playboy feature entitled Ten Little Indians. But the magazine pulled it as the Wounded Knee standoff attracted headlines.

Then came the call from Marlon Brando, who'd been supporting American Indian causes (she said) for several years already. They'd met when Sacheen was giving a presentation on race and minorities to the Federal Communications Commission in Washington, DC, as "a spokesperson ... for the stereotype of Native Americans in film and television."

At the Oscars ceremony, the Best Actor award was announced by Liv Ullman and Roger Moore, who named Brando as the winner.

Sacheen Littlefeather walked onto the stage, in an Apache buckskin dress. Moore offered her the trophy, but she declined it by raising her hand, palm forward. She spoke these words:

"Hello. My name is Sacheen Littlefeather. I'm Apache and I am president of the National Native American Affirmative Image Committee. I'm representing Marlon Brando this evening, and he has asked me to tell you in a very long speech which I cannot share with you presently, because of time, but I will be glad to share with the press afterwards, that he very regretfully cannot accept this very generous award. And the reasons for this being are the treatment of American Indians today by the film industry – excuse me [in response to boos and cheers] – and on television in movie re–runs, and also with recent happenings at Wounded Knee. I beg at this time that I have not intruded upon this evening, and that we will in the future, our hearts and our understandings will meet with love and generosity. Thank you on behalf of Marlon Brando. [applause]

Moore escorted Littlefeather offstage, running the gauntlet of the jibes and criticism, and into a press conference at which she read Brando's speech in full. The New York Times published the full text next day.

Both on the night and subsequently, the reaction was mixed. Both boos and cheers were heard from the audience; presenters Raquel Welch, Michael Caine and Clint Eastwood all made sarcastic remarks. The Academy banned proxy acceptance of future awards. But Sacheen was encouraged to receive a note of support from Coretta King, the widow of Martin Luther King.

Marlon Brando expressed regret over the way Sacheen Littlefeather had been treated: "They should have at least had the courtesy to listen to her." But worse was to come for Sacheen: it was the end of her acting career. She claimed she was blacklisted by Hollywood.

After the Awards ceremony, she visited Marlon Brando at his home. Bullets were fired at his front door. In October 1973, Playboy added insult to injury by printing her photos.

Two years later, she suffered a collapsed lung and was given a year to live. But she was saved by Native American medicine. She subsequently received a degree in health, with a minor in Native American medicine. She studied nutrition and travelled to Europe, where she was struck by the similarities between certain regional foods and those eaten by Native Americans.

From the early 1980s she devoted more of her time to activism. She co–founded the National American Indian Performing Arts Registry, helping Native Americans to find acting roles. She worked on several films promoting Native American history and culture. She became involved in supporting Native Americans with AIDS, which brought her into contact with Mother Teresa.

In 2010, an article in Native American Times concluded that "Saying she was never one to sit around and do nothing, Sacheen Littlefeather has made helping others her life's work. She says that's what life is really all about."

Marlon Brando's next film after The Godfather was Last Tango in Paris. His performance won critical praise, but was overshadowed by controversy over the film's sexual content. He was nominated for an Oscar, but lost out to Jack Lemmon in Save the Tiger.

The final high point of Marlon Brando's acting career came in 1979 in Apocalypse Now, in which his character – a renegade former US Army officer – speaks the iconic final words: "the horror ... the horror".

Marlon Brando died in 2004, aged 80.

© Haydn Thompson 2020