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John Wayne and Sacheen Littlefeather: What happened at the 1973 Oscars?

Bruno Cooke March 28, 2022
Sacheen Littlefeather Speaking at Academy Awards

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Following the ups and downs of Sunday’s 94th Academy Awards, we remember possibly the most significant event to occur at an Oscars ceremony, which is explored in 2021 documentary Sacheen: Breaking The Silence. What happened between John Wayne and Sacheen Littlefeather after she stood in for Marlon Brando at the 45th Academy Awards in 1973?

Sacheen Littlefeather declined Marlon Brando’s Oscar in 1973

At the 45th Academy Awards in 1973, Sacheen Littlefeather – also known as Marie Louise Cruz – took to the stage in Marlon Brando’s place.

The academy had awarded him with the Best Actor award for his role in The Godfather. However, Brando boycotted the ceremony as a protest against Hollywood’s portrayal of Native Americans and to draw attention to the Wounded Knee Occupation.

Sacheen was 26 years old at the time. Born to an Apache/Yaqui father and European American mother, she wore an Apache buckskin dress to the ceremony.

She introduced herself as the president of the National Native American Affirmative Image Committee, and then said she was representing Marlon Brando.

How did John Wayne react to Sacheen Littlefeather’s speech?

The reason Brando declined the award, and the reason why Sacheen spoke in his place, was – per her speech – “the treatment of American Indians today by the film industry… and also with recent happenings at Wounded Knee”.

Sacheen Littlefeather accepting the Oscar on behalf of Marlon Brando for his role in “The Godfather”.

She recalled later, to The Globe and Mail newspaper, that her speech divided the audience: “Half booed and the other half listened.

“John Wayne was waiting backstage to take me off. He had to be restrained by six security men.

“I was given 60 seconds by the producer to make that speech or I would be arrested.”

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When asked whether John Wayne “was going to physically remove” her, Sacheen responded: “Yes.” She stressed, however, that she “did not put up my fist in protest”, nor “use profanity”. Instead, she used “politeness, eloquence and quiet strength”.

Entertainment Weekly quotes John Wayne as saying following Littlefeather’s speech: “If (Brando) had something to say, he should have appeared that night and stated his views instead of taking some little unknown girl and dressing her up in an Indian outfit.”

2021 documentary Sacheen: Breaking The Silence explores Littlefeather and Brando’s Oscars stunt

The events above occurred in 1973, but its reverberations continue today. 

The Wrap discussed how Littlefeather and Brando “fought John Wayne for the soul of the Oscars” in a 2019 podcast episode. Meanwhile, a documentary by Rugged Entertainment entitled Sacheen: Breaking The Silence came out last year.

Watch the trailer below:

With a 26-minute running time, the documentary is available to watch on Amazon Prime. You can find alternatives via Linktree here.

Littlefeather talks in the documentary about how people “could not believe what happened that night”. 

“They’re still talking about it today, 45 years after the fact. I was the first woman of colour, the first native indigenous woman to ever make a political statement in the history of the Academy Awards.”

The Wounded Knee Occupation began in February 1973. 200 Oglala Lakota and followers of the American Indian Movement seized and occupied the town of Wounded Knee, South Dakota, on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. The stand-off lasted more than 70 days.

Afterwards, AIM leaders Dennis Banks and Russell Means were indicted but their 1974 case was dismissed by the federal court.

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Bruno is a novelist, amateur screenwriter and journalist with interests in digital media, storytelling, film and politics. He’s lived in France, China, Sri Lanka and the Philippines, but returned to the UK for a degree (and because of the pandemic) in 2020. His articles have appeared in Groundviews, Forge Press and The Friday Poem, and most are readable on Medium or onurbicycle.com.