When Marlon Brando Refused the Oscar for His Role in The Godfather to Support the Rights of Native Americans (1973)

At the 45th Acad­e­my Awards, Mar­lon Bran­do won the Best Actor award for his per­for­mance in The God­fa­ther — but sent a Native Amer­i­can civ­il rights activist named Sacheen Lit­tle­feath­er to decline it on his behalf. “The twen­ty-six-year-old activist took the stage in a fringed buck­skin dress and moc­casins,” writes the New York­er’s Michael Schul­man. “When she explained that Brando’s rea­sons for refus­ing the award were Hollywood’s mis­treat­ment of Native Amer­i­cans and the stand­off in Wound­ed Knee, South Dako­ta, there were loud boos and scat­tered cheers.”

More sev­en­ties things have hap­pened, but sure­ly not many. With time, Schul­man writes, “the whole thing cement­ed into a pop-cul­ture punch line: preen­ing actor, fake Indi­an” — the “cry­ing Indi­an” envi­ron­men­tal PSA had aired just a few years before — “kitschy Hol­ly­wood freak show. But what if it wasn’t that at all?”

Almost half a cen­tu­ry lat­er, this notable chap­ter in Oscars his­to­ry has come back into the news in the wake of the Acad­e­my of Motion Pic­ture Arts and Sci­ences’ offi­cial apol­o­gy to Lit­tle­feath­er. It’s now more wide­ly under­stood who Lit­tle­feath­er is, and what Bran­do was going for when he made her his emis­sary that night in 1973.

Bran­do was­n’t espe­cial­ly hes­i­tant to explain his actions even at the time: less than three months after the event, he laid out all his rea­sons on The Dick Cavett Show. “I don’t think that peo­ple gen­er­al­ly real­ize what the motion pic­ture indus­try has done to the Amer­i­can Indi­an,” he tells Cavett. “As a mat­ter of fact, all eth­nic groups.” He then runs down the “sil­ly ren­di­tions of human behav­ior” deliv­ered night­ly on tele­vi­sion, high­light­ing the phe­nom­e­non of “Indi­an chil­dren see­ing Indi­ans rep­re­sent­ed as sav­age, as ugly, as nasty, vicious, treach­er­ous, drunk­en.”

Such clichéd por­tray­als were what Bran­do meant to address by speak­ing through Lit­tle­feath­er. But the pub­lic’s imme­di­ate reac­tion, as Cavett puts it, went along the lines of, “There’s Bran­do jump­ing on a social-cause band­wag­on now, get­ting in on the Indi­ans.” They’d for­got­ten that the actor’s con­nec­tion with Native Amer­i­can caus­es went back at least to 1964, when he was arrest­ed at a Pacif­ic North­west “fish-in” by the Puyallup tribe protest­ing the denial of their treaty rights. And as Lit­tle­feath­er’s fêt­ing by the Acad­e­my shows, that con­nec­tion has long sur­vived even Bran­do him­self.

Relat­ed con­tent:

Inter­ac­tive Map Shows the Seizure of Over 1.5 Bil­lion Acres of Native Amer­i­can Land Between 1776 and 1887

Albert Ein­stein Sports a Native Amer­i­can Head­dress and a Peace Pipe at the Grand Canyon, 1931

1,000+ Haunt­ing & Beau­ti­ful Pho­tos of Native Amer­i­can Peo­ples, Shot by the Ethno­g­ra­ph­er Edward S. Cur­tis (Cir­ca 1905)

The God­fa­ther With­out Bran­do?: It Almost Hap­pened

How Dick Cavett Brought Sophis­ti­ca­tion to Late Night Talk Shows: Watch 270 Clas­sic Inter­views Online

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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