Actress and activist Sacheen Littlefeather — whose calm protest to the world at the Academy Awards nearly 50 years ago put an enduring spotlight on the treatment of Indigenous people in the film industry — died Sunday, Oct. 2, at her home in California surrounded by her family. She was 75.
Her death from metastasized breast cancer came just two weeks after she received an in-person public apology from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for the harsh treatment she received after refusing an Oscar for best actor on behalf of Marlon Brando at the Academy Awards ceremony on March 27, 1973.
Littlefeather, Apache and Yaqui, was the first Native person to appear at the podium at the Academy Awards and drew international attention as well to the American Indian Movement protests at Wounded Knee.
“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,” she said in a 2018 documentary about her life, “Sacheen: Breaking the Silence.”
— Sacheen Littlefeather has no regrets
A Catholic Requiem Mass will be held later this month at St. Rita Church in Fairfax, California, according to a statement released late Sunday on behalf of her family. She is expected to be buried next to her beloved husband, Charlie Koshiway, Otoe/Sac and Fox from Oklahoma, who died in 2021.
Littleather spoke with ICT via Zoom just a few weeks before her death about the unprecedented apology and her life after she was largely blackballed by the entertainment industry. She became a holistic medicine expert and activist who helped found the American Indian AIDS Institute in San Francisco and worked to share the importance of incorporating traditional medicine with mainstream treatments.
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Her health, she told ICT at the time, “could be better,” but she spoke clearly and firmly for nearly 45 minutes. She said she had no regrets about the protest speech and the way it changed the trajectory of her life.
“When I was young and gorgeous back in the day, I promised myself I would never be bored,” she said. “And I never have been.”
She appeared in person on Sept. 17 at the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures in Los Angeles for “An Evening with Sacheen Littlefeather,” where she received a public apology for her treatment and those of other Indigenous people in the film industry.
Bird Runningwater, Cheyenne and Mescalero Apache, who heads the Academy’s Indigenous Alliance, led the discussion with Littlefeather at the museum event.
"To appear onstage and share space with Sacheen as part of her reconciliation with the Academy is one of the most meaningful experiences of both my career and life," Runningwater told ICT in a statement.
"I’m profoundly grateful for everything she stood for and for the long legacy of her activism that will impact generations to come," he said. "When she took to the Oscars stage in 1973, Native American representation had been essentially erased from education curricula and pop culture. The world has taken great strides since then, but there is still much work to be done — and we will continue to persevere in her memory."
Littlefeather received a formal apology letter in June from then-Academy President David Rubin.
“As you stood on the Oscars stage in 1973,” Rubin wrote in the letter, “...you made a powerful statement that continues to remind us of the necessity of respect and the importance of human dignity.
“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.”
Her death drew an immediate response on social media, where she largely was championed as a voice for Indigenous people during the tumultuous 1970s.
“When I talk about how our current Native storytelling movement in Hollywood is built on the shoulders of activists fighting tirelessly for decades for Native people to finally get our day in the sun, I'm talking about Sacheen Littlefeather. RIP,” Indigenous comedy writer Joey Clift, Cowlitz, posted on Twitter late Sunday.
Canadian actress Devery Jacobs, who was nominated for a Canadian Screen Award for best actress for her appearance in “Rhymes for Young Ghouls,” said she was honored to meet Littlefeather at the museum event.
“Two weeks ago I got to meet one of my idols, Sacheen Littlefeather, on a beautiful evening, honoring her at the @academymuseum,” Jacobs said in a Tweet early Monday. “Journey well Sacheen.”
A model and an actress, Littlefeather was a member of both the Red Earth Theater Company and the Screen Actors Guild. She appeared in films that included "The Trial of Billy Jack" in 1974 and "Winterhawk in 1975, among others, before receiving a bachelor's degree in holistic medicine from Antioch University. She was also featured in the film, "Reel Injun" in 2010 and the documentary about her life, "Sacheen: Breaking the Silence," released in 2018.
Littlefeather was diagnosed with advanced breast cancer in 2018 after more than a decade of health issues. She told The Guardian in 2021 that the cancer had metastasized to a lung and that she was terminally ill.
She told ICT of her plans to be buried next to her husband of 32 years.
“I’ll have a plot next to him when it’s my time to go to the spirit world,” she said.
She told ICT she was shocked to receive the apology from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
“I never thought anything like this would ever happen in my whole lifetime,” she told ICT. “This is an apology that is being given to all Native peoples – not just to me, myself and I, but to we, us and our. 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 continued, “I never expected anything like this. And I’m glad that I am still alive to receive it.”
*Update: This story was updated to include additional responses to the death of Sacheen Littlefeather.
In lieu of flowers, the family asks that donations be made to the American Indian Child Resource Center, 522 Grand Ave., Oakland, CA 94610.
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