She was not to touch the Oscar, no matter what happened. Marlon Brando had been very clear on that and when Marlon Brando spoke, you listened. The legendary actor had asked Sacheen Littlefeather, a little-known 26-year-old Native American activist and aspiring actress, to represent him at the 1973 Academy Awards where he was nominated for Best Actor for playing Don Vito Corleone in The Godfather and should he win, to refuse the award on his behalf.
When Brando's name was announced, Littlefeather walked up to the stage to the Godfather theme, her expression somber. Presenter Roger Moore attempted to give her the statuette, but she silently held up her hand. Brando had written a lengthy speech for Littlefeather to deliver, but she had been warned by the producer of the Oscar telecast, Howard W. Koch, that if she stayed on the stage for more than one minute, she'd be arrested. So, in her own words, she explained that the actor was regretfully turning down the award to protest ''the treatment of American Indians today by the film industry'' and the ongoing siege of 200 American Indian Movement activists by armed local and federal authorities in Wounded Knee, S.D. A mix of boos and applause arose from the audience. ''I beg at this time that I have not intruded upon this evening,'' Littlefeather concluded, ''and that we will, in the future, our hearts and our understandings will meet with love and generosity.''
Forty years later, on a bright January morning, Littlefeather, now 66, sits in the living room of her small, tidy home outside San Francisco. Wryly funny and quick to laugh despite an ongoing battle with breast cancer, she is wary about being interviewed and has asked two friends to join her for moral support. Before the conversation begins, the women hold a brief ceremony, burning a sprig of dried cedar and praying that the interview be conducted ''with all the respect it requires.''
In the years since her Oscar appearance one of the most controversial ever Littlefeather has heard various false allegations: that she's not really a Native American, that she rented her buckskin dress, that she was a wannabe riding Brando's coattails. ''A lot of the stories I've read about myself, I don't even recognize who they're writing about. It's just made-up stuff.''
The hostility toward her continues to this day. Last August on The Tonight Show, Dennis Miller cracked about then Senate candidate Elizabeth Warren, who had claimed some Cherokee ancestry: ''She's about as much Indian as that stripper chick Brando sent to pick up his Oscar for The Godfather.'' Asked about Miller's comment, Littlefeather (who did pose nude for Playboy in 1973, a decision she regrets) just sighs. ''Boy, he is the unfunniest guy I've ever heard,'' she says. ''It goes back to the time of the Romans: If you didn't like the message, you kill the messenger.''
Born Marie Cruz to a white mother and an Apache and Yaqui Indian father (''I say I'm half Indian and half savage,'' she jokes), she was handed over to her maternal grandparents at age 3 due to abuse and neglect. As a teen in Salinas, Calif., she started exploring her heritage and became active in the Indian civil rights movement. In 1971, through her work with the National Native American Affirmative Image Committee, she began corresponding with Brando, who was passionate about Indian issues. ''He'd call me and we'd talk,'' she says. ''This went on for quite some time before he came up with the idea of my representing him at the Academy Awards, which happened about a day before [the ceremony]. It was very spontaneous.'' Three months after the Oscars, on The Dick Cavett Show, Brando explained: ''I felt that it was a marvelous opportunity for an Indian to be able to voice his opinion to 85 million people. I felt that he had a right to, in view of what Hollywood has done to him.''