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An ugly stain of bigotry in Oscars history eventually led to a celebration of Indigenous culture, hosted at the symbolic heart of the motion picture industry, nearly half a century later.
On Saturday, the Academy welcomed Sacheen Littlefeather to its museum for an evening curated in her honor, an event that was both a culmination and continuation of its efforts to apologize to and reconcile with the actress and activist who was blacklisted from the industry for speaking up in protest of the treatment of Native Americans on- and offscreen.
“In one of our many conversations with Sacheen in preparation for this event, we asked, ‘What does reconciliation look like to you?’ And that single, powerful question has led us to this evening,” said Academy Museum director and president Jacqueline Stewart, who emceed the program alongside Earl Neconie (Kiowa/Okla.), a longtime friend of Littlefeather’s. “Tonight is her vision of what the path forward might look like, that we can all share space to celebrate Native American and Indigenous cultures, to reflect, to collectively support one another in this circle of healing.”
What ensued was a nearly two-hour program, attended by a mixed crowd of more than 820 people indigenous to and originating from lands beyond what is now known as the United States, which saw Native people and culture take center stage at the David Geffen Theater and offered an intimate glimpse into the community to which Littlefeather (Apache/Yaqui/Ariz.) has devoted her life.
Former museum director and president and current Academy CEO Bill Kramer introduced the instantly historic footage of Littlefeather’s 1973 Oscars moment, when she appeared at Marlon Brando’s behest to decline the best actor award on his behalf, and absorbed jeers and professional backlash in his stead. “When we opened the museum, we grounded it in a focus on reflecting on our own past. This evening is an evolution of that work, and it really all started with this clip,” he said.
Choking up, Stewart then welcomed Littlefeather herself to the stage, and the ensuing minute-plus standing ovation was a marked contrast to the boos she received the last time she attended an Academy event. Littlefeather, 75, uses a wheelchair now, but her warmth and unflappable demeanor was unchanged from the 26-year-old woman who made the first onstage political statement in Oscars history. In her conversation with producer Bird Runningwater (Cheyenne/Mescalero Apache/N.M.), co-chair of the Academy’s Indigenous Alliance and the first person to reach out to Littlefeather on behalf of the Academy, the elder spoke haltingly with some shortness of breath but with no shortness of wit.
“Well, I made it — after 50 years. You know how we Indian people are, we are very patient people,” she quipped to the crowd by way of greeting.
Littlefeather provided both the levity and gravity that grounded the evening, admitting that she was in dread when she realized she would have to refuse the Oscar from co-presenter Liv Ullmann, one of her favorite actresses (as for Ullmann’s co-presenter: “Roger Moore, 007? Ehh!”), and embracing her role in achieving justice for Native Americans: “I was representing all Indigenous voices out there, because we had never been heard in that way before. And if I had to pay the price of admission, then that was OK, because those doors had to be opened — like Yosemite Sam. Somebody had to do it.”
Per cultural tradition, Littlefeather also took the opportunity to bestow some personal gifts to a handful of individuals who participated in the evening’s program — Neconie, musical leaders Michael Bellanger (Ojibwe/Minn. and Kickapoo/Okla.), Steve Bohay (Kiowa/Okla.) and Joe Tohonnie (Apache/Ariz.) and Stewart, who was visibly moved as Littlefeather’s adoptive niece and caregiver, Calina Lawrence (Suquamish/Wash.), draped her in a deep purple shawl. “I’m crossing over soon to the spirit world,” said Littlefeather, who revealed last year that she has metastasized breast cancer. “And you know, I’m not afraid to die. Because we come from a we/us/our society. We don’t come from a me/I/myself society. And we learn to give away from a very young age. When we are honored, we give.”
David Rubin and Janet Yang, the former and current presidents of the Academy, respectively, then took the stage to publicly present the organization’s apology to Littlefeather. Crediting the input of Runningwater, producer Heather Rae and the other members of the Indigenous Alliance, as well as staff members including Academy executive vp impact and inclusion Jeanell English, Rubin read the letter of apology that was first privately presented to Littlefeather in June, followed by remarks from Yang, who teared up: “Our support, celebration and recognition of Native American and Indigenous communities and storytellers do not end today. … We are building a future of film that is collaborative, conversational and solutions-oriented. Representation without inclusion or access is not enough. I am so honored to be here with you today and look forward to our future, one which you have greatly inspired. I would like to also reiterate our apology and our gratitude toward you.”
As part of her response, Littlefeather asked all the Indigenous people present in the theater to stand. Nearly half of the room rose to their feet. “I am here accepting this apology, not only for me alone but as acknowledgment, knowing that it was not only for me, but for all of our nations that also need to hear and deserve this apology tonight,” she addressed the crowd. “Look at our people. Look at each other and be proud that we stand as survivors, all of us. Please, when I’m 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.”
While Littlefeather read her prepared remarks from center stage, Rubin, Yang, Stewart and Runningwater stood off to the side — a striking tableau that captured the current diverse state of the Academy leadership and also served as a sort of fulfillment of the future that the lifelong activist had expressed hope for in her first Academy speech, nearly 50 years ago.
The evening also featured a land acknowledgement from Virginia Carmelo (Tongva/So. Calif.) and performances by Bohay and the Sooner Nation Singers and Dancers, Bellanger and the All Nation Singers and Dancers and Tohonnie and the White Mountain Apache Crown Dancers, as well as an intertribal powwow featuring eight performers dancing in their individual styles to the same song: Teresa Littlebird (Northern Cheyenene/Calif.), grass dancers Wesley Bellanger (Ojibwe/Minn. and Kickapoo/Okla.) and Randy Pico Jr. (Navajo and Luiseño/Calif.), southern straight men’s traditional dancer James Gregory (Osage/Okla.), southern women’s cloth dancer Michele Gregory (Pit River/Northern Calif.), fancy shoal dancer Olivia Gone (Southern Cheyenne/Okla.), jingledress dancer Sophia Seaboy (Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate Sisseton/S.D.) and chicken dancer Akshkii Keediniihii (Diné Navajo/Ariz.). Lawrence, a singer-songwriter, also sang two numbers, the hip-hop-inflected “Don’t Count Me Out” and “ʔəshəliʔ ti txʷəlšucid,” a modern R&B-style number in the Lushootseed language.
Following the program, which was free and open to the public, the 300 invited guests — friends of Littlefeather, filmmakers, creatives as well as members of community organizations including the Los Angeles County/City Native American Indian Commission, International Indigenous Youth Council, IllumiNative and Meztli Projects — adjourned upstairs to the fifth-floor tea room for a reception that featured a buffet created by chef Crystal Wahpepah (Kickapoo/Okla.), including smoked cedar bison roast, roasted agave hubbard squash salad, and black oak acorn and Mayan chocolate devil cake.
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