It was the performance of a lifetime.
In 1973, Sacheen Littlefeather took the Oscars stage on behalf of Marlon Brando to decline his Godfather award.
Dressed in traditional braided robes, the Native American rights activist was the perfect messenger for Brando’s statement criticizing the treatment of Hollywood – and America – by indigenous people.
But a few weeks after her death, Littlefeather’s sisters came forward in a bombshell interview to say she wasn’t Native American at all.
In fact, they told the San Francisco Chronicle that she was Hispanic.
“It’s a lie,” Trudy Orlandi told Jacqueline Keeler, herself a Native American activist. “My father was who he was. His family was from Mexico. And my father was born in Oxnard. California.”
“It’s a fraud,” Sister Rosalind Cruz added. “He’s disgusting the legacy of the tribal people. And it’s just … an insult to my parents. “
Both women said they identified themselves as Hispanic and insisted that the family was not of Native American ancestry.
“I mean, you won’t be an American Mexican princess,” added Ms. Orlandi.
“You will be an American Indian princess. It was more prestigious to be an American Indian than to be Hispanic in her mind. “
Littlefeather died earlier this month in California at the age of 75. She was described as an “Apache activist and actress” in a New York Times obituary.
Until the end, Littlefeather insisted she was Native American.
“I spoke with my heart, not for myself, for myself, as an Indian woman, but for us and us, for all the Indian people,” she said in one of her latest interviews. “I had to tell the truth. Regardless of whether it was accepted or not, it had to be pronounced on behalf of the natives. “
But Ms. Keeler conducted her own research which revealed that Littlefeather’s claim about the ancestry of the White Mountain Apaches was unsubstantiated.
He found that Littlefeather was born as Maria Louise Cruz in Salinas, California, the daughter of Manuel Ybarra Cruz and Gertrude Barnitz.
He had claimed the Native American heritage through his father.
But Ms. Keeler found no ties to any tribe in her family history. Instead, the documents showed that the family’s roots were in a village that is now part of Mexico City.
The sisters were also angered by Littlefeather’s portrayal of a poor and violent upbringing.
Neither attended the funeral and was only informed of their older sister’s death from an online news site.
“Sacheen didn’t like herself,” Orlandi said.
“She didn’t like being Mexican. So, yeah, it was better for her to play someone else that way. “
Littlefeather’s appearance at the 1973 Oscars was one of the most controversial incidents in the 94-year history of the Academy Awards.
Brando was named Best Actor for his performance in The Godfather. Instead of accepting the award in person, he sent Littlefeather, then 26, to represent it.
When Roger Moore prepared to deliver the statue to the stage, he raised his hand to refuse the honor.
Instead, after introducing herself as chair of the Native American Affirmative Image Committee, she said Brando “respectfully” couldn’t accept the award due to Hollywood’s treatment of American Indians.
There was a commotion with some attendees booing, while others cheering. A furious John Wayne had to be restrained by six security guards.
Later in the ceremony, she was teased by Clint Eastwood.
By the time she appeared on the Oscars stage, Littlefeather had already embarked on a modeling career, with advertising photographs of her in tribal attire.
Littlefeather’s treatment at the ceremony remained a scourge for nearly 50 years with the Academy of Motion Pictures, which eventually apologized just weeks before his death.
At an event the Academy held in her honor in Los Angeles in September, Litteleather joked about the long wait, saying “we Native Americans are very patient people.”
“I accept this apology not just for me alone, but an acknowledgment not just for me, but for all of ours [Native American] nation, “added Piuma.
“Our nation needs to hear these excuses.”