SAN RAFAEL, Calif. – I waited for her in front of the supermarket when she drove up in her little compact car. She quickly parked and got out, looking for me.
“Walk on by,” she sang. “Walk on byyyyy…” She swished her hips and did a little dance step. Sacheen Littlefeather was teasing me. I’d spent the last 30 minutes or so lost in the Northern California hills circling her neighborhood. She had finally given up on my navigation skills and came to fetch me at the Safeway.
“You like Dionne Warwick?” she asked. “Walk on byyyyyy.” She hummed a few bars. “Drive on byyyyy.” She laughed, her eyes twinkling as she grinned at me over her sunglasses. “Let’s go. What are you driving? OK. You’ll follow me.” And just like that, I began my day with Sacheen.
I didn’t know who Sacheen Littlefeather was until I saw a screening of the documentary “Reel Injun” in Tulsa earlier this year. There is a film clip from the 1973 Oscar Awards in the documentary. Marlon Brando was announced winner of Best Actor for his role in “The Godfather.” Then a stunningly beautiful Native American woman ascends the steps to the stage on his behalf. Roger Moore moves to give her the statuette but she shakes her head and gestures a refusal. She walks directly to the podium, a sheaf of papers gripped in her hand. She raises her eyes to look directly into the camera and out to the audience.
“Hello. My name is Sacheen Littlefeather. I’m Apache and I am president of the National Native American Affirmative Image Committee.
I’m representing Marlin Brando this evening, and he has asked me to tell you in a very long speech which I cannot share with you presently because of time, but I will be glad to share with the press afterwards, that he very regretfully cannot accept this very generous award.
And the reasons for this being are the treatment of American Indians today by the film industry, excuse me, and on television in movie re-runs and also with recent happenings at Wounded Knee.
I beg at this time that I have not intruded upon this evening and that in the future, our hearts and our understandings will meet with love and generosity.
Thank you on behalf of Marlon Brando,” she said, then made her way off the stage.
My curiosity was sparked. Who is this woman? What happened to her? A Google search rendered damning newspaper articles and posts. She wasn’t really Indian. She was a fake. She posed for Playboy. She had no credibility. She was really Maria Cruz, born in January 1947. She was a Mexican actress.
I noticed a common thread in all these things. Sacheen Littlefeather was not directly quoted in any of them. I wondered, “What would Sacheen Littlefeather say if given a chance?”
I soon discovered she and I had a mutual friend, who gave her my phone number. A few days later, my phone rang. It was Sacheen. “I hear you’d like to talk to me,” she said. “Yes. I’d like that,” I said. So we arranged for me to visit her. And that’s how I ended up lost in the Northern California hills. I wanted to know who she really was and what had happened to her.
This is what she told me:
Sacheen was born Marie Cruz on Nov. 14, 1946, in Salinas, Calif.
“Mom was a leather stamper who trained in Phoenix. She met my dad there. He was White Mountain Apache and Yaqui. He was an expert saddle maker. He taught her how to make saddles,” she said.
She was conceived in Arizona, but her mother left to meet up with her parents in California towards the end of her pregnancy. Her mother ended up in Salinas and that was where Sacheen was born.
Her father was a voilent alcoholic who didn’t value women.
“Just being a female was a drawback. Around him I was very quiet. It was the best way to be or else,” she said, smakcing her palm with her fist. “I was very shy, very shy indeed, and very quiet. It wasn’t a very happy time. I had too much on my mind. I was very serious.”
Sacheen described her mother as a “free spirit” who left her to be raised primarily by her white grandparents – her namesake Marie, who she lovingly referred to as a “Modern Day Millie” and her grandfather Barney, who had served in the military during World War I.
“He had big hands. He’d always take my little hand in his and we’d pray together. We used to say the rosary together,” she said.
She spent some time with her mother. She remembers travelling with her through Mississippi. That was when she realized she was different.
“My mom used one restroom and I had to use the other,” she said. “I had to use the ‘black’ drinking faucets and the ‘black’ bathroom. That is something I remember vividly. That and the sign, ‘No Dogs or Indians Allowed.’
“It wasn’t too good to be of mixed parentage. Not back in the early 40s, it wasn’t,” she said.
“I remember being 7 when someone said to me, ‘what are you anyway?’ and I had no idea what they were asking, and I said, ‘I’m Catholic!’” she said laughingly.
Marie Becomes Sacheen
“When I was a teenager, I decided it was time to explore my ethnicity. I was tired of this Caucasian world. I’m not Caucasian,” she said. When you grow up as an urban Indian, it’s a whole different experience. Especially if you were raised by Caucasians.”
She learned about being an Indian while in college. She frequented the San Francisco Indian Center and joined other urban Indians in occupying Alcatraz Island in 1969.
“I was with a whole group of Indian people who were like me on Alcatraz Island. Wilma Mankiller was there, John Trudell, Anthony Garcia… It was amazing. We were all together. I was a student then, so I didn’t live on the island. I travelled back and forth. There was a boat, the Clearwater, owned by Creedence Clearwater Revival (the rock group) that transported Indians back and forth to the island,” she said.
She said she got to know elders who took her and other urban Indians under their wings. They would take them out for a week at a time to a traditional camp and teach them the old ways.
“They’d teach us about sweat lodges, about the sacred pipe and about cedar and sage,” she said. Sacheen learned how to skin a rabbit and to dry a hide. She learned about the dances and the drum.
“If you’re quiet enough and sincere enough, people will teach you what you need to know,” she said.
“At the Indian Center, we had a guy who was just great. Don Patterson (who is the chairman of the Tonkawa Tribe in Oklahoma) taught us Indian dancing – how to put the left foot in front of the other,” she said, laughing at the joke. “He was a great drummer and singer. He took everybody and said, ‘I’m going to teach you what to do with your left foot and I’m going to sing for y’all.’”
“We learned from the best. We learned from Don Patterson. We learned from Adam Fortunate Eagle.”
Her Navajo friends nicknamed her “Sacheen,” a word she says means “little bear.” She liked the name and took it.
It may be unexpected for a shy and withdrawn child to turn to acting and modeling as an adult, but that is exactly what Sacheen did.
“Dancing and acting was an escape from reality. Taking on another persona… you can be anything you want,” she said.
It was her grandmother Marie who pushed her out of her shell and thrust her into public speaking.
“I think I cried the first time I had to speak in public. I was so shy and timid. It was horrible. It was the worst thing I ever had to do in my whole life – get up in front of the public. She (Marie) made me do it. In front of the 4-H Club.”
Sacheen began her acting education with the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco on a full scholarship. She soon made her way into a radio job at KFRC in San Francisco and started doing television ads.
But she just couldn’t quite break the barrier into Hollywood.
“Americans liked the blonde Sandra Dee look. To get an American movie in those days, the 70s…” she said shaking her head and shrugging.
“I got speaking parts in Italian films because they liked the exotic… I was exotic to them,” she said.
Sacheen didn’t speak a word of Italian, but they liked how she looked.
Her agent then landed her a shoot with Playboy Magazine. The spread was to be called “Ten Little Indians.” It could have launched Sacheen’s career.
Then the occupation of Wounded Knee in February 1973 prompted the powers that be at Playboy to pull the photos (although they printed hers in October 1973 as a stand-alone feature).
It was March 27, 1973, when Sacheen took the podium at the Academy Awards to reject Marlon Brando’s Academy Award.
“I knew Brando before the Oscars,” she said. “He’d been supporting American Indian causes for several years already. I met him in D.C. when I was there giving a presentation to the FCC (Federal Communications Commission) on race and minorities.
“He called me and asked me to do it. In the 70s you had AIM and the Indian Civil Rights Movement and that was the part that I was in. I was a spokesperson, so to speak, for the stereotype of Native Americans in film and in television. All I was saying was, we don’t want Chuck Conner playing Geronimo.”
Part 2: The Activist
SAN RAFAEL, Calif. – All it took was 90 seconds for her dream of a Hollywood career to go up in smoke.
On March 27, 1973, Sacheen Littlefeather earned her place in Academy Award history by representing Marlon Brando and refusing the Oscar for his role in “The Godfather.” She also ensured the end of her acting career.
“It cut my career short. If it weren’t for that I’d probably have a going career. I worked for radio, for television, I was in the Screen Actor’s Guild…” she said shrugging her shoulders.
The newspaper articles printed afterwards, she said, were “just horrible. No one ever asked me my side of the story.”
“We have Indians over here at Wounded Knee who are going to be sent to a place like Guantanamo Bay at any second by the FBI, out of sight, out of mind. Something’s got to be done about them, right? So these were the things that I was saying,” she said.
“I was boycotted (by the film industry); somebody had to pay the price.”
Sacheen, however, stayed busy. She landed a radio job and remained an advocate for Native American rights and for Native American actors.
“I knew that I was on the right track when I got a note from Coretta King, Martin Luther King’s wife. She told me she was proud of me,” Sacheen said.
Her life took another turn when she was 29-years-old. She became terminally ill.
“I was given a year to live. My lungs collapsed . . . I was bleeding internally,” she said.
But holistic healing and Native American medicine healed her, she said. After her recovery, she earned a degree in health with a minor in Native American medicine.
“When I started studying nutrition, I wanted to see where all the ‘white’ food came from. Everyone is enamored with white flour, white sugar, white lard. So I went over to the land of the white food. I went to Sweden. I lived in Stockholm. Everybody was blonde when I was there – the Nordic look. I stuck out like a sore thumb!” she said laughingly.
She enjoyed traveling and was intensely interested in where foods came from. She wanted to see where the people who brought those foods came from, too.
“I wanted to do everything and do it now. I traveled the world. I wanted to go to Europe and see where the white people came from, you know?” she said. “They’re always going to reservations to see where the Indians came from.”
She especially remembers her time in Madrid, Spain.
“They have, guess what? Flour and water and they cook it in oil. They call it a Buñuelo. It’s Indian fry bread. We got it from the Spanish,” she said.
While in Russia, she ate a piroshky, a meat pie she said tasted just like those her Kiowa friends made.
She attributes ‘white’ foods to many Native health problems and began teaching and writing articles on nutrition. She worked for the Kiowa Tribe in Oklahoma in 1981 and wrote a health column for its newspaper. She also spent time teaching in the Traditional Indian Medicine Program at St. Mary’s Hospital in Tucson, Ariz.
In the early 80s, she was one of the co-founders of the National American Indian Performing Arts Registry, a nonprofit organization that encourages the film and television industries to hire Indians.
In 1984, Sacheen shared in an Emmy Award for her advisory work on PBS’ 1984 “Dance in America” presentation of the ballet “Song for a Dead Warrior.” She worked on two PBS shows, “Remember Me Forever” and “The Americas Before Columbus,” both broadcast in 1992. She also produced films on American Indian health subjects and taught seminars about Indians’ portrayal in American media and encouraged students with Santa Fe’s Institute of American Indian Arts, which trains future filmmakers.
Sacheen eventually ended up back the in the San Francisco Bay area where she volunteered and worked with Native Americans dying with AIDS. That’s when she met Mother Teresa.
“Marlon Brando didn’t impress me the way Mother Teresa impressed me. She was somebody who worked with the poorest of the poor but never tried to ‘missionize’ anybody. She was just about doing good works, period,” Sacheen said.
Mother Teresa opened ‘A Gift of Love’ AIDS hospice in San Francisco in 1988 and Sacheen was one of the founders of the American Indian AIDS Institute of San Francisco, an educational and support group for Native Americans. She said too many of her friends died in isolation with the incurable disease and that motivated her.
Saying she was never one to sit around and do nothing, Sacheen Littlefeather has made helping others her life’s work. She says that’s what life is really all about.
“It’s being a guiding light for the younger people, because you’ve been there, you’ve done that. You get wiser, well, wiser and wider, I like to say.” she laughs. “But you get a little bit wiser and you’re able to help younger people go about what being young is all about. If you haven’t LIVED, why bother them?”
Currently, Sacheen is busy promoting the documentary “Reel Injun.” She is also the coordinator of the Kateri Circle of the Archdiocese of San Francisco, which blends Native American spirit with Catholic ritual in honor of Kateri Tekawitha, the “Lily of the Mohawks,” a 17th century Iroquois maiden beatified by Pope John Paul II.
Hollywood has made over 4000 films about Native people; over 100 years of movies defining how Indians are seen by the world. Reel Injun takes an entertaining and insightful look at the Hollywood Indian, exploring the portrayal of North American Natives through the history of cinema.
CORRECTION: In part one of this article, the call letters of KFRC were incorrectly written as KFAC and it should have been noted that Sacheen’s father was not only White Mountain Apache but also of Yaqui descent.