Sacheen Littlefeather: Activist who rejected Marlon Brando’s Oscar and worked in AIDS hospice dies

Sacheen Littlefeather. (Getty)

Actor and civil rights activist Sacheen Littlefeather, who famously rejected Marlon Brando’s Oscar on his behalf, has died aged 75.

Littlefeather died on Sunday (2 October) at home, surrounded by loved ones. She had been diagnosed with breast cancer in 2018, and announced it had metastasised and become terminal in an interview with The Guardian last year.
She leaves behind a strong legacy of standing up for civil rights. The actor and activist became well-known after she gave a speech on Brando’s behalf, rejecting his Oscar for The Godfather in 1973, citing “the treatment of American Indians today by the film industry” and the Wounded Knee occupation. 

It bought international attention to Wounded Knee, which saw a lengthy stand-off between US authorities and Native Americans, however the speech was met with bile.

Littlefeather claimed actor John Wayne “backstage, had to be restrained by six men from coming to get me and pull me off the stage”.

She was subsequently “blacklisted” in Hollywood and only received an apology from the Academy, after almost 50 years, earlier this year.

Tributes have poured out for Littlefeather across social media.

Native writer, Ruth Robertson, wrote: “While people remember her for her acceptance speech on behalf of Marlon Bardon, know that she also ended the media blackout of the Wounded Knee occupation, won an Emmy & co-founded the American Indian AIDS Institute of San Francisco.”

Writer Joey Clift wrote: “When I talk about how our current Native storytelling 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.”

“Sacheen Littlefeather dedicated her life to justice and lifting Indigenous voices,” one person wrote, “she worked directly with AIDS patients in the 80s, she’s an absolute legend in the Bay Area Indigenous community in so many more ways than one moment.”

Littlefeather was a founding board member of the American Indian AIDS institute of San Francisco.

In its first newsletter, it explained one purpose of the organisation was the “development of a brand base of community members, who feel ownership of the program and assist in the diffusion of HIV information in the community.”

In 1990 it was reported that Littlefeather attended a memorial to remember her brother who died of an AIDS-related illness.

Littlefeather also worked at the Gift of Love AIDS hospice in San Francisco which was founded by Mother Theresa and was visited by her several times before her death. 

Her tireless activism is remembered in a quote attributed to Littefeather, reading: “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. I remain Sacheen Littlefeather,”