Sacheen Littlefeather has died aged 75.
The actress passed away at her home in Novato, California on Sunday just weeks after accepting an apology from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for abuse she suffered in the aftermath of her 1973 Oscars speech which she gave on behalf of Marlon Brando – making her the first Native American woman to step foot on stage at the glitzy event.
News of her death was announced by the Academy in a post on Twitter, which read: “Sacheen Littlefeather, Native American civil rights activist who famously declined Marlon Brando’s 1973 Best Actor Academy Award, dies at 75.”
No more details about her death have been released but Sacheen had previously revealed she was battling breast cancer which had metastasized.
Brando won the Best Actor award for his role as Don Corleone in ‘ The Godfather’ but boycotted the awards show and Sacheen took to the stage to decline the statuette on his behalf.
It was a protest over how Native Americans had been portrayed onscreen and the occupation of the South Dakota town of Wounded Knee by followers of the American Indian Movement (AIM) and Sacheen gave a moving speech explaining why Brando was turning down the prize.
She told the audience: “[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.”
She was booed by some members of the crowd and faced a fierce backlash afterwards, with Academy bosses issuing an apology for her treatment earlier this year.
In a letter penned back in June, then-AMPAS president David Rubin wrote: “The abuse you endured because of this statement was unwarranted and unjustified. The emotional burden you have lived through and the cost to your own career in our industry are irreparable. For too long the courage you showed has been unacknowledged. For this, we offer both our deepest apologies and our sincere admiration.”
A celebration was later held in her honour in late September.
Speaking during the ‘An Evening with Sacheen Littlefeather’ event at the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures in Los Angeles, she said: “I am here accepting this apology. Not only for me alone, but as acknowledgement, knowing that it was not only for me but for all our nations that also need to hear and deserve this apology tonight.” She continued: “Now, I would like all the Indian people in this audience to stand. Look at our people, look at each other and be proud that we stand as survivors, all of us. “Please, when I’m gone, always be reminded that wherever you stand for your truth, you will be keeping my voice and the voices of our nations and our people alive. “I remain Sacheen Littlefeather. Thank you.”
Sacheen was born in California and studied acting at San Francisco’s American Conservatory Theater before going on to pursue a career in the entertainment industry.
She landed some TV and radio advert work, but previously insisted her looks worked against her, saying: “Americans liked the blonde Sandra Dee look … I got speaking parts in Italian films because they liked the exotic.”
Sacheen met Brando several years before the Oscars and after the much-publicised speech, the actor appeared on ‘The Dick Cavett Show’ to express his dismay that few had listened to her message.
He said: “[I] was embarrassed for Sacheen. She wasn’t able to say what she intended to say, and I was distressed that people booed and whistled and stomped even though perhaps it was directed at myself. They should have at least had the courtesy to listen to her.”
In later years, she spoke openly about her experiences and participated in 2018 documentary ‘Sacheen: Breaking the Silence’.