A healer and activist, Sacheen Littlefeather was far more than her infamous Oscar moment

Sacheen Littlefeather's role as an activist started well before her infamous Academy Awards moment when, in 1973, she declined an Oscar on behalf of Marlon Brando and used her 60-second speech to call out the mistreatment of Indigenous people.

Apache and Yaqui elder advocated for the health of Indigenous peoples. She died Sunday at age 75

A woman sites in a wheelchair in front of a red backdrop wearing brightly coloured Indigenous beadwork.
Sacheen Littlefeather is seen on stage at the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures on Sept. 17, in Los Angeles. Although she was best known for declining an Academy Award on behalf of Marlon Brando in 1973, Littlefeather's work as an activist, a healer and an elder is what defined her life. (Frazer Harrison/Getty Images)

Sacheen Littlefeather dedicated her life to advocating for the rights and health of Indigenous people.

Her role as an activist started well before her infamous Academy Awards moment when, in 1973, she declined an Oscar on behalf of Marlon Brando and used her 60-second speech to call out the mistreatment of Indigenous people.

And though she was shunned in Hollywood after that moment, she told Unreserved host Rosanna Deerchild in a September interview that she was "pushed in" — not out — toward more meaningful work.

"I see things as if I climbed the Grand Canyon in Arizona, and I'm looking down now to where I've been in life," Littlefeather said at the time.

"That has taught me quite a bit, looking from this viewpoint and realizing what all has happened throughout the years and cultivating, throughout the experiences of my life, a very positive attitude toward everything."

Littlefeather died Sunday, aged 75, due to breast cancer at her home in Marin County, Calif. 

"Littlefeather dedicated her life to the health and wellness of Native people everywhere," the activist's family said in a statement. "She was known for her sense of humor, quick wit, and fierce advocacy for Native American and Indigenous communities."

In August, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences apologized for how Littlefeather's speech at the Oscars was received; her acting career came to an abrupt end, she faced discrimination and was threatened by actor John Wayne. In mid-September, the academy held an event co-programmed by Littlefeather in her honour.

In the years that followed that speech, Littlefeather raised awareness of the injustices faced by Indigenous peoples, whether it be how they are portrayed on screen or cared for in illness.

"I did a lot of work in my community, in my Native American Indian community, and had since I was on Alcatraz Island way back when, in the beginning of the '70s," she said.

"[These are] things that people usually don't know about."

Advocate for Indigenous rights

In late 1969, dozens of Indigenous activists, led by Richard Oakes, had occupied Alcatraz Island. The occupation was also organized by the American Indian Movement. After the federal prison on the island was closed in 1963, Indigenous people wanted the land returned to them, with plans of creating a cultural centre and school there.

Littlefeather was a student, supported by grants and scholarships, at the time and couldn't dedicate herself fully to the cause, she recalled.

"I only got to go on Alcatraz as a weekend warrior, so to speak," Littlefeather said in the September interview.

An individual with salt-and-pepper hair pulled back, wearing a colourful scarf around her shoulders, standing next to a poster with an image of her younger self.
Littlefeather, in an undated photo from 2022, stands in front of a poster depicting her at the Oscars night that ended her career as an actor and model but propelled her further down a road as an activist and healer. (Submitted by Sacheen Littlefeather)

Those weekends on the island, however, were affirming. Littlefeather hadn't grown up in her Indigenous community and didn't know much about the culture. On Alcatraz, she connected with her Indigenous heritage.

"I was an urban Indian, raised as a white person. And, of course, I, like other urban Indians, have been discriminated against," she said.

"We got to connect with our own Indianness there on the island, Indians of all tribes."

Littlefeather saw the occupation of Alcatraz as a kind of crucible for the Indigenous activism that would follow.

"It's not being on the island, I don't believe, that was the important thing. For me, it's 'What did you do that sparked your creativity from the island going forward?'" she said.

I knew that if you speak the truth, the truth will last beyond the time of eternity.- Sacheen Littlefeather

Littlefeather, along with Jasper Redrobe, is credited as a creative consultant on Song for Dead Warriors — a ballet by the San Francisco Ballet Company that won an Emmy Award for its PBS television production. 

"Joanne Woodward, who is the wife of Paul Newman who I went to see the ballet with … her comment was, 'This is not a ballet, this is real life,'" Littlefeather recalled.

"It was the story of the Indian person who came on relocation to the urban Indian area, and it was patterned after the life of Richard Oakes, who had since died for the cause," she said.

Littlefeather also supported the occupation at Wounded Knee in 1973, while working as a public service director for a local radio station in San Francisco. It was at that time she connected with Marlon Brando and eventually spoke at the Academy Awards.

WATCH | Sacheen Littlefeather declines Marlon Brando's Oscar:

Focus on medicine, natural treatments

At the age of 29, Littlefeather's lungs collapsed "like two flat tires on the freeway," she said. A case of tuberculosis during her childhood was to blame.

After having what she described as an out-of-body experience during her hospital stay, Littlefeather decided to forego additional treatment — continued hospital stays, surgery and medications — in search of a holistic path forward.

"I became a vegetarian for five years and totally cleansed my whole system out … with acupuncture, with herbs, with natural food as medicine," she said.

Littlefeather began sharing what she learned with others, offering workshops to communities around the United States, and eventually graduated college with a degree in holistic nutrition, minoring in Indigenous medicine. 

Working with a hospital in Tucson, Ariz., she helped create a natural medicine program to serve the facility's Indigenous patients.

"Medicine people were coming there to help to heal those patients who were hospitalized, and the doctors, the nurses, etc., did not understand why they were there," Littlefeather told Unreserved. 

"So we helped to educate the entire staff … about what traditional Indian medicine is all about."

Asked whether she was still working as a healer, Littlefeather said: "Oh, absolutely. It's a best-kept secret." 

Caregiver for people living with AIDS

In the 1980s, as the effects of the HIV/AIDS epidemic became clearer, Littlefeather turned her attention to how the disease was affecting Indigenous communities in the United States.

She helped found the American Indian AIDS Institute in San Francisco.

"We knew that our people were dying from AIDS and that we were the only ones to take charge and to help our own people through the process of AIDS, and to help them to go through the process of death, to the other side," she said.

In this March 27, 1973, photo, Littlefeather can be seen telling the audience at the Academy Awards ceremony that Marlon Brando was declining to accept his Oscar as best actor for his role in The Godfather. The move was meant to protest Hollywood's treatment of American Indians. (The Associated Press)

Later in the 1980s, Littlefeather began working with Mother Teresa in a San Francisco hospice run by the nun. She would eventually ask the woman she called "Mother" for training. 

"I volunteered and that's when I asked her. And she said yes, she would not turn down a helping hand," said Littlefeather. "So I became a student of hers, if you will."

Littlefeather spent much of the remainder of her life working in hospice.

'Courage you showed went unacknowledged'

In its apology, the academy acknowledged the "abuse" Littlefeather endured following her speech was "unwarranted and unjustified."

"The emotional burden you have lived through and the cost to your own career in our industry are irreparable. For too long the courage you showed has been unacknowledged," read the letter of apology addressed to Littlefeather.

Undoubtedly, Littlefeather's courage remained for decades, buoyed by an unwavering belief that she was never alone. 

"I knew that if you speak the truth, the truth will last beyond the time of eternity," she said. "I was willing to do this because I knew that my ancestors would be behind me and before me and surrounding me."

Interview produced by Kim Kaschor.