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Meet the woman who refused Marlon Brando's Oscar and inspired Jada Pinkett Smith's boycott

Forty-two years before the #OscarsSoWhite debate, a lone woman of color stood up against Hollywood.

In 1973, Native American actress and activist Sacheen Littlefeather refused Marlon Brando's Oscar in front of millions of viewers. On Brando's behalf, she used the opportunity to make a political statement decrying the stereotyping of Native Americans in movies and TV, and to support American Indian Movement activists at Wounded Knee, S.D. Some in the audience booed, but others found it inspiring even years after the event. Jada Pinkett Smith recently wrote to Littlefeather saying that watching a clip of the Oscars speech provided validation for her boycott of the Oscars this year.

For those watching that night, everything probably seemed normal as presenters Roger Moore, who was about to take over from Sean Connery as the new James Bond, and Liv Ullmann, a favorite of director Ingmar Bergman, read off the lead actor nominees. The nominee pool was actually more diverse than it is this year: It included Paul Winfield, who, had he won for his performance in "Sounder," would have been the second black winner of the award in Oscars history.

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Brando won for his role in "The Godfather."

But he wasn’t there to accept the honor. Instead, Littlefeather took the stage. When Moore tried to hand her the Oscar, she held her hand up and politely refused it.

The audience didn’t get to hear the contents of the letter that Brando gave her to read aloud that night, which included comments on not only the academy, but on the effects of racism in Hollywood in general:

It's hard enough for children to grow up in this world. When Indian children watch television, and they watch films, and when they see their race depicted as they are in films, their minds become injured in ways we can never know.

Her words were met with a mixture of applause and booing, an analog to the mixed reactions this year to the #OscarsSoWhite discussion, both online and in the academy.

Littlefeather says she was effectively blacklisted in Hollywood after her speech, but she received support from civil rights figures such as the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s widow, Coretta Scott King, who thanked her for her gesture. Since then, Littlefeather has taught at universities, been involved with film projects such as “Reel Injun,” a 2009 documentary that explores how Native Americans are portrayed in Hollywood, and continued in her activism.

#OscarsSoWhite: The boycott, reaction and more

Littlefeather spoke with The Times via phone at her home in Northern California and shared her thoughts on the #OscarsSoWhite conversation.

The #OscarsSoWhite conversation started online with a black woman named April Reign. Some compare what she started to what you did in 1973.

I think April is on the ball, she’s with it. I think she’s got it going on. I’m so happy the conversation is happening.

Recently a lot of the conversation has been stuck in a black-versus-white question, but many are pushing for more diversity, the idea that there should be room for everyone on the screen. Reign says one of the issues is that too many people assume that only movies about straight white males will bring in big audiences.

Absolutely. It’s amazing. Really, it’s about representation of everybody, everybody who isn’t being shown right now. And about showing all of the culture.

And not just stereotypical roles.

Yes. How many Native American sitcoms are there? There should be tons, we have the greatest sense of humor in the world! There’s a sitcom in Canada called “Mohawk Girls,” and it’s great. It’s just about growing up. It’s funny for everyone, but there are cultural things that really resonate if you’re Indian, if you’ve been on a reservation. We live in a diverse society and we all need our stories to be told, and we deserve to be represented accordingly on movies and television. And what April said was right. Everybody buys tickets to that movie house.

What did you think of Jada Pinkett Smith’s video?

When I heard about it, I immediately thought that I had to talk to her. I wrote her an email, congratulating her on her stance, because it was something that really needed to be done. That was an act of courage.

Did you hear back from her?

Yes, she wrote me back, the same day.

What did she say?

I’m not very tech savvy, but I can just read it to you from my computer screen:

“Dear Sacheen Littlefeather: I am deeply honored that you took the time to write me. I am very aware of who you are and I have watched your speech at the Oscars many times. Your speech and the position you and Mr. Brando took was a much needed validation for my position. Thank you for being one of the brave and courageous to help pave the way for those of us who need a reminder of the importance to simply be true. I will cherish your words and sentiments in hopes that our paths may cross in this lifetime. Until then may the Great Spirit guide us all and may Mother Earth continue to keep us in her compassionate embrace. In friendship, Jada Pinkett Smith.”

That was her response.

Many credit your Oscars speech with bringing attention to the occupation by American Indian Movement activists at Wounded Knee in South Dakota.

Marlon Brando was an excellent strategist, and he knew that that year, the Academy Awards would be broadcast via satellite, to millions of people all over the world. The FBI had put a news blackout on Wounded Knee, so that people couldn’t hear from [the activists]. This was a way to get around that. When people saw that broadcast, all hell broke loose. It put a lot of attention on the FBI’s actions.

You used your time at the podium to spotlight the issue in a way that people couldn’t ignore.

Yes, and the government was madder than hell. Afterward, they came looking for me, and told everyone in the studios in Hollywood not to hire me, or they would shut them down. That’s how it was. I was the subject of a big exclusion. There’s an old saying, if you don’t like the message, you kill the messenger. And I was the messenger. I was blacklisted, or you could say “redlisted.” Johnny Carson, Dick Cavett, they didn’t want me on their shows.

Some of the negative things people have said about you remind me of some of the negative things people say about Black Lives Matter activists.

People have to be really hurting, and to be extremely marginalized, to start feeling like no one cares, you know, to want to start Black Lives Matter. To get to the point that you feel there’s no other way, that you have to say that “black lives matter,” because people don’t get it otherwise. Racism is so prevalent within our society, it’s like breathing air. We have to unlearn, and relearn, and re-educate. And I think that the entertainment industry is part of that re-education. A lot of people don’t read books today. Where do they get their education? Movies, television and things like that. That’s why it’s so important, it’s a bigger picture than just entertainment.

Last week President Obama said that he thinks “the Oscar debate is really just an expression of this broader issue of are we making sure that everybody is getting a fair shot.”

He gets it, knowing that we all have to tell our stories. The more the merrier. I’m happy he said that. We can’t leave people of color out.

Can you talk more about that moment at the Oscars in 1973? In the actual footage of the ceremony, you can hear people booing at you.

Oh, I got threats. They said, “Why did they send a woman to do a man’s job?” [The people backstage] said they’d give me 60 seconds, or they’d arrest me. John Wayne was in the wings, ready to have me taken off stage. He had to be restrained by six security guards. Afterward people questioned my authenticity, they said I wasn’t even Indian.

It must have been difficult to be on the receiving end of so much anger.

Maybe. But later I heard from Coretta Scott King, the widow of Dr. Martin Luther King, saying that I had done the right thing. And I heard from Cesar Chavez, who congratulated me. And many leaders of the Native American movement. That’s when I knew I was doing the right thing. And I got letters, from everyone. I still do, from all over the world, thanking me… I’m just hoping that Jada Pinkett Smith doesn’t get a big backlash from taking her position.

Is a backlash something that worries you?

Oh, they can’t do anything to me anymore. I’m between here and dirt. I’m going on 70 years old. Me and the Creator are OK. [laughs]

Do you think people who speak out today about the Oscars should be worried?

I think everyone should speak their piece. If you can’t speak out, write it. I think people should make statements. If you’re not going to watch, say why. I made a statement, and that’s why we’re having this conversation today. Everyone should express themselves, just like they say in that song.

What about Chris Rock? He’ll be hosting the Oscars, and a lot of people have called for him to either boycott it, or to make a statement. Do you think he should say something?

I think Chris Rock will say something, in his own way. He’s an incredibly intelligent person, incredible comedian. I think that he will make jokes that will go far over people’s heads. I was watching videos of Richard Pryor [who hosted the Oscars in 1977, and also joked about the lack of black nominees] the other night. He injected such humor and brilliant thinking into his sketches. He talked about racism in a way that no one else could, in the way he addressed it. Charlie Hill, too, he was our Indian comedian. He talked about the missionaries trying to commit or convert us, in this really brilliant way.

Charlie Hill also appeared on Richard Pryor’s show in 1977.

Right. There are so many things to say through comedy. Chris Rock could do that. It’s a terrific challenge, but I think he can pull it off.

What do you think average moviegoers, who aren't in the academy, should do if they think that representation in film and television is an important issue?

Let your dollars talk. Your dollars are the ones that make the difference. Support the films and the actors that you want to see again and again. That includes independent films. We should support them too, and independent actors and actresses. You know, truth lasts forever, over the decades of time. It doesn’t go away. It resonates from one generation to the next, far beyond the time I will go to my grave. We have become a generation of diversity. We have mixed the coffee with the cream, so to speak. People have blended together. That is our truth. And our films should reflect that.

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