February 05, 2009

All about Sacheen Littlefeather

Sacheen LittlefeatherWho was Sacheen Littlefeather? Was she Brando's creation, as pingouin suggests; was she a "fake" Indian, as is reported on many websites; or was she a woman trying to promote a cause she believed in?

The most common urban myth is that she is "really" a Latina actress named Maria Cruz, who was born in 1947 in California and sent by Brando to refuse his Oscar. pingouin takes this story to its logical conclusion, claiming that Marlon Brando created her and that she was an art piece that he performed. Well, not quite.

Sacheen Littlefeather was born Maria Cruz in 1947, but beyond that not much about her life conforms to the rumours. Her mother was white and her father part Apache, part Yaqui. She was born on a reserve in Arizona into conditions typical of such environments: her parents were very poor, her father physically and sexually abused her, and she attempted suicide at age 9.
In 1973, Cruz got her 15 minutes of fame when Marlon Brando won an Oscar for The Godfather:She wore an antique buckskin dress and beaded hairpieces--appearing as a stereotypical Indian girl--and brought a 15-page statement written by Brando explaining his reasons why he was refusing the award, should he actually be the winner. He fussed over the speech till the very last second, so that Littlefeather arrived late and was whisked on stage within a few minutes.

When Brando's name was announced, the audience cheered, but they soon started to boo as Littlefeather appeared. Liv Ullman and Roger Moore were to present the award to Brando, and a famous photo shows them looking completely nonplussed as Littlefeather holds out her hand to decline the statuette. (Moore was so freaked out by the whole thing that he took the little gold guy with him to Mexico before realizing he still had it.) Littlefeather had been forbidden to read Brando's full speech by producer Howard Koch ("If you try, I'll cut you off the air," he apparently hissed at her), so she made a short statement.
Sacheen LittlefeatherThis is the only authorized website for Sacheen Cruz Littlefeather

Sacheen Littlefeather currently resides in Northern California and is available for interviews, appearances and speaking engagements. This is the only website that will allow you to communicate with her about such matters. All other websites or email boxes are fake and unauthorized.

Contrary to misinformation which has been published on the internet, Sacheen Littlefeather is indeed of true Native American Indian descent. Sacheen was born Marie Cruz in Salinas, California. Her mother is French-German-Dutch, and her father was from the White Mountain Apache and Yaqui tribes from Arizona. "Cruz" is her father's recognized tribe name. Sacheen took the name "Sacheen Littlefeather" after high school to reflect her natural heritage. She is not a "Mexican actress" as Roger Ebert incorrectly reported.
Comment:  Watch Cruz's speech on YouTube, especially if you didn't see it originally as I did. It's a great example of Native America intersecting with pop culture.

Imagine denouncing Native stereotypes to a billion or whatever viewers. I don't know if it had an effect, but stereotypes in movies started disappearing (slowly) around that time.

More important, everyone who saw this moment remembers it. This shows the power of popular culture to have an impact on people.

For more on the subject, see The Best Indian Movies.

6 comments:

Simone said...

What is curious to me is that in order to denounce such things the presenter had to be portrayed by a typical Indian maiden, another stereotype. I suspect that Brando felt that in order to be "recognized"this had to be done..I guess he never saw the pictures of those in the A.I.M. movement and couldn't consider bringing his "art" into the current times in order to introduce a "real" Indian..interesting..

Rob said...

Something I read implied that Brando and Cruz chose the stereotypical costume intentionally. I don't know if that's true or not.

If they did, I'm not sure anyone got the message. How many people thought she was a fake Indian and how many thought she was a real one?

A good satire is supposed to be exaggerated for effect. As I've said before, you can't mock stereotypes by duplicating them. When intentional flaws look exactly like unintentional ones, it's impossible to know the creators' intent.

The right way for Cruz to dress would've been in an over-the-top outfit. Perhaps something like Cher wore on her record album cover. Then people might've gotten the message: "We're mocking you for stereotyping Indians."

Anonymous said...

I don't think Brando was trying to mock the Indian Princess stereotype. Rather he was doing what well meaning liberals are prone to do and unintentionally embracing a "positive" stereotype--in this case the high-minded yet sensual woman of colour. Just another variation of the noble savage myth.

Brando's intentions may have been good, but unfortunately this stunt probably did more to convince people he was a kook than get them to seriously think about the problems of American Indians.

Anonymous said...

CONFUSING, FIRST STATES SHE WAS BORN IN ARIZONA ON RESERVATION, THEN LATER STATES IN CALIFORNIA. GET YOUR FACTS STRAIGHT!

Anonymous said...

Unfortunately her career in Hollywood was dampened by this. she settled for Playboy I suppose.

Nicholas Stix said...

Simone: "Curious" “Interesting.”

Aside from their lawyers, no non-Indian spent more time with AIM terrorist leaders than Brando.

Your ignorance is matched only by your smugness.