The Academy apologizes to Sacheen Littlefeather

(November 14, 1946 – October 2, 2022)

This might seem shocking, but believe it or not, “the slap heard ‘round the world” was actually not the craziest thing to occur at the Academy Awards ceremony.

“The slap” of course, was when host Chris Rock made light of Jada Pinkett Smith’s hair loss and shaved head with an insensitive and unscripted “joke”, and Academy Award winner Will Smith took it upon himself to march up to the stage and slap Rock with an open palm and then casually return to his seat before shouting expletives at the comedian. 

Since that event, Smith has apologized publicly more times than anyone really wanted or needed and he was punished for his behavior by being banned from all Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences events for the next 10 years.

While Smith faced consequences for his actions and apologized, no one has apologized to Sacheen Littlefeather for the treatment she received back in 1973… until now, almost 50 years later.

That year, Marlon Brando boycotted the Academy Awards and refused to accept the Best Actor award for his role in The Godfather. He was attempting to protest against the treatment of Native Americans in Hollywood and bring attention to the Wounded Knee Occupation.

Brando sent Native American actress and civil rights activist Sacheen Littlefeather to decline his award, giving her the platform to share the plight of Native Americans in an eloquent speech written by Brando.

Unfortunately, she was met with hostility at the awards and was told she only had 60 seconds to complete the speech or she would be arrested. She had no choice but to improvise the speech as she refused to even touch the award statue, per Brando’s request.

Allegedly, during the speech, John Wayne attempted to rush the stage to assault the actress and activist. Later on, during the show, Clint Eastwood went on stage to present the Best Film award and mocked Littlefeather, saying he was presenting the award on behalf of “all the cowboys shot in all the John Ford Westerns.”

Littlefeather also confirmed the attempted assault by Wayne during an interview with the Guardian last year, saying, “During my presentation, he (John Wayne) was coming towards me to forcibly take me off the stage, and he had to be restrained by six security men to prevent him from doing so.”

Littlefeather continued, “I was escorted off of that stage by some armed guards. And luckily so, because John Wayne was waiting in the wings ready to go on to pull me off the stage, and he had to be held back by six security men because he was so outraged about what I had said.”

Littlefeather’s speech can be seen here:


She kept her full composure despite the boos and jeers coming from the audience as well as the attempted physical assault, which apparently the Academy didn’t seem to care about at the time, nor for the past 49 years.

Subsequently, Littlefeather was blacklisted by Hollywood and never worked again in film or television. She was even mocked as late as 2012 by Dennis Miller who was attempting to insult Elizabeth Warren by saying Warren’s “as much Indian as that stripper chick Brando sent to pick up his Oscar”.

According to The Hollywood Reporter, The Academy privately apologized to the now 75-year-old activist and she shared some of that apology with THR:

“The abuse you endured because of this statement was unwarranted and unjustified,” then-Academy president David Rubin wrote in the organization’s apology letter, dated June 18. “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.”

Nearly half a century later, Littlefeather will return to the Academy as a guest of honor at an event on September 17, 2022 at the Academy Museum where she will read the apology in its entirety. Littlefeather will be joined by producer Bird Runningwater (Cheyenne/Mescalero Apache/N.M.), co-chair of the Academy’s Indigenous Alliance.

An Evening with Sacheen Littlefeather will be free to the public via online reservations. The evening’s program will include additional performers and speakers such as Academy CEO Bill Kramer, traditional vocalist and singer Calina Lawrence (Suquamish/WA), former Academy President David Rubin, incoming Academy President Janet Yang, emcee Earl Neconie (Kiowa/OK), emcee Jacqueline Stewart, Assembly member James Ramos (Serrano/Cahuilla/So. CA), The San Manuel Bird Singers (San Manuel/CA), Michael Bellanger (Ojibiway/MN & Kickapoo/OK) and the All Nation Singers and Dancers, and Steve Bohay (Kiowa/OK) and the Sooner Nation Singers and Dancers.

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Joia DaVida reports on the entertainment industry in both Chicago and Los Angeles.