Highly acclaimed actor and Indigenous activist Sacheen Littlefeather passed away from metastasized breast cancer on October 2, 2022. Family surrounded Littlefeather at the time of her passing; she was 75 years old.
Immediately after news of her death surfaced, others in the Native American community took the time to recognize her for all her positive influence. Littlefeather was best known for her peaceful yet brutally honest speech at the 1973 Academy Awards ceremony. Although Littlefeather received much backlash for her speech from the Academy Award board, others were inspired to pursue change in how Indigenous people were represented in America.
Who was Sacheen Littlefeather?
Littlefeather was Apache and Yaqui Indian and did considerable things during her time to fight for equality for all Native American people. As previously mentioned, one action Littlefeather is most known for is her 1973 peaceful protest at the 1973 Academy Awards. At this time, Littlefeather was the first Native person to ever stand at the podium during the awards ceremony.
In 1973, Littlefeather was called on stage to accept an award on Marlin Brando’s behalf. However, instead of accepting the award, the activist used her time to address the harsh treatment and misrepresentation of Indigenous peoples in the film industry.
“…he [Brando] 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 and on television in movie reruns, and also with recent happenings at Wounded Knee,” Littlefeather said in her concise speech.
Although short, Littlefeather’s speech garnered international attention, especially regarding the events at Wounded Knee.
Unfortunately, much of the film industry blackballed Littlefeather after the speech. Still, before her passing, the activist attested she never regretted what she said all those years ago.
“When I am gone, always be reminded that whenever you stand for your truth, you will be keeping my voice and the voices of our nations and our people alive,” Littlefeather said in the documentary about her life, “Sacheen: Breaking the Silence.”
In addition to her famous Academy Awards ceremony speech, Littlefeather did plenty to promote equality for the Native American community. Most notably, she became an expert in holistic medicine and helped found the American Indian AIDS Institute. With that, Littlefeathers’ goal was to promote the essential balance between holistic and mainstream medicine.
Wounded Knee Events in 1973
In addition to the unfair representation of Indigenous people in the film industry, Sacheen Littlefeather acknowledged the 1973 events at Wounded Knee. In 1973, 200 Oglala Lakota and American Indian Movement (AIM) followers seized and occupied the town of Wounded Knee, South Dakota. The group chose the town because of its symbolic significance, as it was the site of the 1890 Wounded Knee Massacre.
The protest was far from random and occurred after the Oglala Sioux Civil Rights Organization (OSCRO) tried to impeach tribal president Richard Wilson. That said, OSCRO accused Wilson of corruption and abuse of opponents, amongst other unethical activities. Additionally, protesters used their platform to criticize the U.S. government’s failure to fulfill treaties with Native Americans.
As a result, protesters demanded that the government reopen treaty negotiations to ensure the equal treatment of Native American people everywhere. The group controlled the town for a total of 71 days.
Sacheen Littlefeather’s Impact on Others
Sacheen Littlefeather will undoubtedly be missed by people from all cultural backgrounds, especially those tied to the Native American community.
Fortunately, before her death, Littlefeather received a formal apology for the backlash from the film industry after her Academy Awards ceremony speech. Then Academy president David Rubin issued a letter to the activist acknowledging the unfair treatment she endured.
“The abuse you endured because of this statement was unwarranted and unjustified…For too long, the courage you showed has been unacknowledged,” Rubin wrote. Littlefeather admitted she wasn’t expecting ever to receive an apology but views it as a win for Indigenous people everywhere.
“My response was on behalf of all of us who suffered years and years of humiliation, of poor self-esteem because of the stereotyping of our people, having to live under the stereotypes of the film and television and sports industries,” she attested.
Although she will be missed, Sacheen Littlefeather and all her positive work in representing the Native American community will not be forgotten. Instead, future generations can now further promote inclusion and acceptance of Native American culture.