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Sacheen Littlefeather sacrificed her career to make way for Indigenous voices

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Time now for StoryCorps. Today, we remember actor and activist Sacheen Littlefeather. In 1973, she used what should have been Marlon Brando's Oscar acceptance speech to call out the treatment of Native American people and their depiction in Hollywood. Littlefeather died this week at the age of 75. She came to StoryCorps in 2019, after she'd been diagnosed with terminal cancer.

SACHEEN LITTLEFEATHER: I was born into poverty. And my parents' marriage was illegal because my father was an Apache and Yaqui man. And my mother was white. I was raised by my two white grandparents, so there was hardly anybody that I could identify with. There were white dolls, white movie stars. People in magazines were all white. So I learned and experienced racial prejudice from a very early age. I didn't even have to walk out my front door. When I got to university, at long last - thank God - there were other Native people out there. We used to go to powwows together. And then I began to listen to the stories of the elders there. I thought then, this is who I really am. So I springboarded (ph) into the arts. And then, eventually, I met Marlon Brando. When I first got the phone call from him, I said, you're asking me to do what, use the Academy Award as a platform to make a political speech? Nothing had been done like that ever before.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LITTLEFEATHER: The winner is Marlon Brando in "The Godfather."

(APPLAUSE)

LITTLEFEATHER: The night of the awards ceremony, I had a sense of calm. I knew my ancestors were with me. I said what needed to be said. I refused the Academy Award.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LITTLEFEATHER: And the reasons for this being are the treatment of American Indians today by the film industry.

(JEERING, APPLAUSE)

LITTLEFEATHER: And then I became unhirable (ph), boycotted, talked about, humiliated publicly. But as a result, I opened the doors for other people to speak. These are the things that I learned from the elders. You have to go through a lot of bumps in this life to smooth the road for others to come after you.

FADEL: That was Sacheen Littlefeather for StoryCorps in 2019. In August, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences issued an apology to Littlefeather. It came nearly 50 years after she was booed at the Oscars.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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