"Ask most kids about details about Auschwitz or about how the American Indians were assassinated as a people and they don't know anything about it. They don't want to know anything. Most people just want their beer or their soap opera or their lullaby." Marlon BrandoIn March 1973, Marlon Brando (1924-2004) declined the Academy Award for Best Actor for his performance in "The Godfather". Instead, he asked Sacheen Littlefeather - actress, activist for Native American civil rights and then-president of the National Native American Affirmative Image Committee - to attend the ceremony in his place (via and via). This was one of the most political and powerful moments in Oscar history (via and via) and not everybody appreciated it (John Wayne, for instance, was not amused). A "tsunami of criticism" followed (via).
One of Marlon Brando's reasons was the way the film industry portrayed Native Americans. At that time, a "high proportion of the Western made up to the 1950s, (...), showed Indians as hostile savages attacking the whites." They were "represented as motiveless and insanely violent" and "merely the backcloth to the inevitable white settlement of the West" (Stokes, 2013).
Apparently, people did not only have a problem with her message but with her being a woman as well:
"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." Sacheen Littlefeather
"They were booing because they thought, 'Well, this moment is sacrosanct and you’re ruining our fantasy with the intrusion of a little reality'". Marlon Brando
"Remember, I was making a profound statement: I did not use my fist, I did not use profanity, I used grace and elegance and quiet strength as my tools." Sacheen LittlefeatherAfter her brief speech, Littlefeather was escorted away by two security people who protected her. People made "some very stereotypical sounds" and threw tomahawk chops towards her. Her activism brought renewed attention to Wounded Knee but also the end of her career. The actress was not hired again as people within the industry were afraid hiring her would shut down their productions (via).
The following day, the New York Times printed Brando's unfinished Oscar speech:
That Unfinished Oscar Speech
For 200 years we have said to the Indian people who are fighting for their land, their life, their families and their right to be free: ''Lay down your arms, my friends, and then we will remain together. Only if you lay down your arms, my friends, can we then talk of peace and come to an agreement which will be good for you.''
When they laid down their arms, we murdered them. We lied to them. We cheated them out of their lands. We starved them into signing fraudulent agreements that we called treaties which we never kept. We turned them into beggars on a continent that gave life for as long as life can remember. And by any interpretation of history, however twisted, we did not do right. We were not lawful nor were we just in what we did. For them, we do not have to restore these people, we do not have to live up to some agreements, because it is given to us by virtue of our power to attack the rights of others, to take their property, to take their lives when they are trying to defend their land and liberty, and to make their virtues a crime and our own vices virtues.
But there is one thing which is beyond the reach of this perversity and that is the tremendous verdict of history. And history will surely judge us. But do we care? What kind of moral schizophrenia is it that allows us to shout at the top of our national voice for all the world to hear that we live up to our commitment when every page of history and when all the thirsty, starving, humiliating days and nights of the last 100 years in the lives of the American Indian contradict that voice?
It would seem that the respect for principle and the love of one's neighbor have become dysfunctional in this country of ours, and that all we have done, all that we have succeeded in accomplishing with our power is simply annihilating the hopes of the newborn countries in this world, as well as friends and enemies alike, that we're not humane, and that we do not live up to our agreements.
Perhaps at this moment you are saying to yourself what the hell has all this got to do with the Academy Awards? Why is this woman standing up here, ruining our evening, invading our lives with things that don't concern us, and that we don't care about? Wasting our time and money and intruding in our homes.
I think the answer to those unspoken questions is that the motion picture community has been as responsible as any for degrading the Indian and making a mockery of his character, describing his as savage, hostile and evil. 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.
Recently there have been a few faltering steps to correct this situation, but too faltering and too few, so I, as a member in this profession, do not feel that I can as a citizen of the United States accept an award here tonight. I think awards in this country at this time are inappropriate to be received or given until the condition of the American Indian is drastically altered. If we are not our brother's keeper, at least let us not be his executioner.
I would have been here tonight to speak to you directly, but I felt that perhaps I could be of better use if I went to Wounded Knee to help forestall in whatever way I can the establishment of a peace which would be dishonorable as long as the rivers shall run and the grass shall grow.
I would hope that those who are listening would not look upon this as a rude intrusion, but as an earnest effort to focus attention on an issue that might very well determine whether or not this country has the right to say from this point forward we believe in the inalienable rights of all people to remain free and independent on lands that have supported their life beyond living memory.
Thank you for your kindness and your courtesy to Miss Littlefeather. Thank you and good night.
Trivia: Scandals around Brando's Oscar trophy continued. Leonardo DiCaprio, who was given Marlon Brando's Oscar trophy for his performance in "Wolf of Wall Street", gave it back this year because the production company was "skewed up in a billion dollar money-laundering scheme" (via).
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- Stokes, M. (2013). American History through Hollywood Film: From the Revolution to the 1960s.
- image via