Native American writer Jacqueline Keeler published a San Francisco Chronicle article alleging that Littlefeather co-opted Native ancestry to further her entertainment career.
After taking the place of Marlon Brando at the 1973 Oscars, Sacheen Littlefeather became one of the entertainment industry’s most prominent activists for Native Americans and other Indigenous peoples. Rather than accept Brando’s Best Actor Oscar, which he had just won for his performance in ‘The Godfather’, Littlefeather, who died earlier this month, turned down the awards and used his time on stage to criticize the treatment of Native Americans on and off screen. The move sparked some outrage, leading the Academy to issue a belated apology to Littlefeather earlier this year.
When she came on stage, her first words were, “Hello. My name is Sacheen Littlefeather. I am Apache. But a new report claims that might not have been true.
In an explosive story by Native American journalist Jacqueline Keeler for the San Francisco Chronicle, Littlefeather’s sisters Rosalind Cruz and Trudy Orlandi claim the activist wasn’t actually Native American.
“It’s a lie,” Orlandi said of Littlefeather’s claimed legacy. “My dad was what he was. His family came from Mexico. And my dad was born in Oxnard.
Cruz added. “It’s disgusting for the heritage of tribal people. And that’s just… insulting to my parents.
Both sisters personally identify as Spanish and accuse Littlefeather of fabricating her Indigenous backstory to advance her career in entertainment. After her 1973 Oscar speech, she played Native American characters in several films including “The Trial of Billy Jack,” “Johnny Firecloud,” and “Winterhawk.” She remained a visible activist until her death in October 2022.
“I mean, you’re not going to be a Mexican American princess,” Orlandi said. “You are going to be a Native American princess. It was more prestigious to be a Native American than to be Hispanic in his mind.
Littlefeather’s sisters claim she lied about more than her ancestry. Throughout her life, she claimed her father was a violent alcoholic who abused her mother, a claim both sisters deny. They both say that many of the stories she has told since childhood actually happened to their father during her childhood, and that she passed them on as if they had happened to her.
“My father’s father, George, he was the alcoholic. My dad never drank,” Orlandi said. “My father never smoked. And you know, she also castigated him and said that my father was mentally ill. My father was not mentally ill.
Littlefeather also claimed to have been present at the Occupy Alcatraz, a 19-month-long protest at the infamous prison that began in 1969. During the protest, Indigenous activists occupied the island in an effort to simulate what they thought the white colonizers had done to their land in America. But LaNada Warjack, one of the student activists who organized the protest, denied Littlefeather was ever there.
“We never really got to know her until Oscar night,” Warjack said.
The accusations come amid an overwhelmingly positive reassessment of Littlefeather’s legacy, with the Academy recently hosting an event to honor him and issuing an apology saying Littlefeather “made a powerful statement that continues to remind us of the need for the respect and the importance of human dignity.
IndieWire has contacted the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for comment.