On the evening of March 5, when Liv Ullman and Roger Moore read out the name of the Best Actor award recipient, neither presenter parted their lips in a smile. Their gaze fell on a woman in Apache dress, whose long, dark hair bobbed against her shoulders as she climbed the stairs.
Moore extended the award to Littlefeather, who waved it away with an open palm. She set a letter down on the podium, introduced herself, and said:
“I’m representing Marlon Brando this evening and he has asked me to tell you … that he 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 —”
The crowd booed. Littlefeather looked down and said “excuse me.” Others in the audience began to clap, cheering her on. She continued only briefly, to “beg” that her appearance was not an intrusion and that they will “meet with love and generosity” in the future.
Why He Did It
In 1973, Native Americans had “virtually no representation in the film industry and were primarily used as extras,” Native American studies scholar Dina Gilio-Whitaker writes. “Leading roles depicting Indians in several generations of Westerns were almost always given to white actors.”
But they weren’t just neglected or replaced in film; they were disrespected — a realization that crippled Brando’s image of the industry.
The following day, The New York Times printed the entirety of his statement — which Littlefeather was unable to read in full because of “time restraints.” Brando expressed support for the American Indian Movement and referenced the ongoing situation at Wounded Knee, where a team of 200 Oglala Lakota activists had occupied a tiny South Dakota town the previous month and was currently under siege by U.S. military forces. He wrote:
“The motion picture community has been as responsible as any for degrading the Indian and making a mockery of his character, describing him as savage, hostile and evil. It’s hard enough for children to grow up in this world. When Indian children … see their race depicted as they are in films, their minds become injured in ways we can never know.”
Still, Brando lent the Native American community a once in a lifetime opportunity to raise awareness of their fight in front of 85 million viewers, leveraging an entertainment platform for political justice in unprecedented fashion. His controversial rejection of the award (which no winner has repeated since) remains one of the most powerful moments in Oscar history.
The beginning of love is the will to let those we love be perfectly themselves, the resolution not to twist them to fit our own image. If in loving them we do not love what they are, but only their potential likeness to ourselves, then we do not love them: we only love the reflection of ourselves we find in them.
“Those who profess to favor freedom and yet depreciate agitation, are people who want crops without ploughing the ground; they want rain without thunder and lightning; they want the ocean without the roar of its many waters. The struggle may be a moral one, or it may be a physical one, or it may be both. But it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.”