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50 Years After Sacheen Littlefeather’s Oscars Protest, “Prejudice & Racism” Persist in Film Industry

Web ExclusiveOctober 10, 2022
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On this Indigenous Peoples’ Day, we are remembering Sacheen Littlefeather, who recently died on October 2 at the age of 75. In 1973, she took the stage at the Oscars on behalf of Marlon Brando, who boycotted the ceremony to protest Hollywood’s portrayal of Native Americans. Some members of the audience booed and mocked Littlefeather as she addressed the awards ceremony wearing traditional Apache clothing. In August, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences finally apologized to her. “The suppression and the domination, the prejudice and the racism in our industry is still happening today,” says her friend and colleague Joanelle Romero, an actress and filmmaker and the first Native American woman of the Academy. Her film, “American Holocaust: When It’s All Over I’ll Still Be Indian,” was short-listed for an Academy Award. She is Apache-Diné and the founder and president of Red Nation Television Network and Red Nation International Film Festival. “It is very important for … our youth to be able to see themselves on media, and primetime television, and in feature films,” says Romero.

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Transcript
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman. On this Indigenous Peoples’ Day, we’re remembering Sacheen Littlefeather. She recently died October 2nd at the age of 75. In 1973, she took the stage at the Oscars on behalf of Marlon Brando, who boycotted the ceremony to protest Hollywood’s portrayal of Native Americans. Some members of the audience booed and mocked Littlefeather as she addressed the awards ceremony wearing traditional Apache clothing.

SACHEEN LITTLEFEATHER: 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 reruns, and also with recent happenings at Wounded Knee.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Sacheen Littlefeather a half a century ago, in 1973. She died on October 2nd. In August, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences finally apologized to her. In 2019, Sacheen Littlefeather talked about her life with StoryCorps, the award-winning national oral history project.

SACHEEN LITTLEFEATHER: I was born into poverty. And my parents’ marriage was illegal, because my father was an Apache and Yaqui man, and my mother was white. I was raised by my two white grandparents, so there was hardly anybody that I could identify with. There were white dolls, white movie stars. People in magazines were all white. So I learned and experienced racial prejudice from a very early age. I didn’t even have to walk out my front door.

When I got to university, at long last, thank God, there were other Native people out there. We used to go to powwows together. And then I began to listen to the stories of the elders there. I thought then, “This is who I really am.”

So, I springboarded into the arts. And then, eventually, I met Marlon Brando. When I first got the phone call from him, I said, “You’re asking me to do what?” Use the Academy Award as a platform to make a political speech — nothing had been done like that ever before.

LIV ULLMANN: The winner is Marlon Brando in The Godfather.

SACHEEN LITTLEFEATHER: The night of the awards ceremony, I had a sense of calm. I knew my ancestors were with me. I said what needed to be said. I refused the Academy Award.

SACHEEN LITTLEFEATHER: And the reasons for this being are the treatment of American Indians today by the film industry.

SACHEEN LITTLEFEATHER: And then I became unhirable, boycotted, talked about, humiliated publicly. But as a result, I opened the doors for other people to speak. These are the things that I learned from the elders. You have to go through a lot of bumps in this life to smooth the road for others to come after you.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Sacheen Littlefeather.

To talk more about her, we’re joined by an actress and filmmaker, Joanelle Romero. She’s the first Native American woman to become a member of the Academy in 2016. Her film, American Holocaust: When It’s All Over I’ll Still Be Indian, was short-listed for an Academy Award, the first to be short-listed by a Native filmmaker. She’s Apache-Diné and founder and president of Red Nation Television Network and Red Nation International Film Festival.

Joanelle, it’s an honor to have you with us. I’m wondering, as you speak to us — and you’re not normally there, but from Auburn, New York, where you’re about to do an Indigenous day event tonight. We’ll talk more about that in a moment. If you can talk about the significance of Sacheen?

JOANELLE ROMERO: Well, Sacheen is a sister and a dear friend. She knows my family. My mom, you know, wanted to be an actress, and she came out to Hollywood, 19, pregnant with me, and was signed to Universal and ended up in several Elvis Presley movies and went on from there.

But Sacheen is — you know, I was speaking to her every day before her event happened at the Academy, the apology. We run the largest Native film festival in the country. It’s Red Nation International Film Festival. And in 2019, we presented Sacheen with the Marlon Brando Award. We’re the only Native film festival in the world that has a Marlon Brando Award, and it’s endorsed by his family, by Rebecca Brando and Miko Brando. And so, it was very — in 2019, when we presented the award to her, it was very auspicious, because it was her 73rd birthday, as well as the event that happened, you know, 50 years ago, in 1973.

You know, Sacheen, at the time, in 1973, it was profound to have a Native woman, you know, a woman of color, a young, gorgeous woman of color, you know, represent all of our Native women at the Academy Awards. And, you know, it’s — the suppression and the domination, the prejudice and the racism in our industry is still very valid today. It’s still happening today. And it’s very important for your listening audience to know that if, you know, for us, you know, for us, like, for our youth to be able to see themselves on media and on primetime television, you know, on the major networks, and to see us in feature films, is — and to read books about us, you know, authentic, today, modern, you know, books about us, is vitally important to the existence of all humanity.

AMY GOODMAN: Joanelle, I’m wondering if you can talk about, you know, when the Academy apologized to Sacheen. And I am so glad she was alive to experience that. She would only die weeks later. But that was also after the Academy discussion that was held, that she was very much a part of. If you could talk about what led to that? I mean, you are the first Native female member of the Academy, and you became that just in 2016? Do you know what led to this apology in August?

JOANELLE ROMERO: Well, all I know is my experience, strength and hope, so that’s what I can share. And in June, the Academy put out a press release. And then, in August, the early August, Sacheen began to call me and say, “You know, they’re going to make this apology. And can you help bring in the Apache Crown Dancers? And can you — you know, I want you to have a guest list,” and so forth. So we were talking, you know, two to three hours every day up until the event.

But, unfortunately, things happened. And so, the Academy still — how can I say this to be a little bit diplomatic? There are still situations that need to be cleared and still more apologies that need to be had by the Academy to clear this path for our Native cinema and the authentic voice of our people within the Academy, because it needs to be — within the Academy needs to be all-inclusive, not just one or two people, you know, delivering messages to the Academy, to the executives at the Academy, right? It really needs to be an authentic voice, an all-encompassing voice of our people. And leading up to that event, it turned out to be something that was not that. So, even though the Academy apologized to Sacheen, which I’m very grateful for, because — and she was able to experience while she was alive, we still have, Amy, so much work to do. So much work.

AMY GOODMAN: In 1973, when Sacheen took the stage, not accepting the award for Marlon Brando, because he had refused it, and you can see her wave it off when it’s — they attempt to give it to her.

JOANELLE ROMERO: Right. Yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: She was the first Native American to speak at an Academy Award —

JOANELLE ROMERO: Right.

AMY GOODMAN: — as she talked about Hollywood’s portrayal of Indigenous people. Did she talk with you about the significance of that moment, and what it meant for her being blacklisted — or, if you will, whitelisted — after that?

JOANELLE ROMERO: Yes. Well, we’ve had many conversations. And mostly what Sacheen and I speak about is: What are we going to do now? Like, we know the suppression, we know the domination that exists within the industry, within institutions, you know, that continue to suppress our voice. And there’s so much. What we — Sacheen and I would really talk about the beauty and the talent that we have in Indian Country. It’s so huge, and it’s so gorgeous. And we’re just now — the industry is just now tapping into it, just a little bit. I mean, we have this success of Dark Winds and Reservation Dogs and Prey. But, you know, we — look, our stories are untapped. Our stories are untapped. So, even though this is the human condition, even though it’s a human story that’s very relatable to everyone, to everyone, our stories are untapped. So it’s a whole new genre of filmmaking. Right? And it’s very exciting.

So, Sacheen and I would talk about those things. We would talk about how to bring forth Red Nation International Film Festival in a bigger way, because even though we run the largest Native film festival in the country, the press still doesn’t pick it up. In 2019, when we were honoring Sacheen with the Brando Award, we had Christian Bale as a presenter. We had Scott Cooper as a presenter. We had Joanne Shenandoah as a host. We had A Martinez as a host. And the trades did not pick it up. Now, what does that say? What does that say to you? What does that say to us? That we’re still being suppressed, that there’s still a domination within the media and within the industry. And we need to come together, though. Sacheen and I would always talk about coming together. How do we bring people together to amplify our Native narrative in an authentic way and recognize and honor the gorgeous talent that we have in our Indian Country?

AMY GOODMAN: Joanelle Romero, you were also the first — you’re an actress. You’re a filmmaker. You’re a musician. You’re a singer, a performer. And you were the first musician to be produced by Leonard Cohen, famous for “Hallelujah” and so much more?

JOANELLE ROMERO: Yeah. Yes, Leonard, it’s a very beautiful story. I’m writing my book, but, really quickly, it’s a beautiful story. When I was — Dennis Hopper was my guardian at some point. That’s a whole other story. And he turned me on to Leonard’s music. And I knew at 12 that I was going to marry Leonard. That was what’s in my head. And when I was very young, I think it was 18 or 19, I had just starred in the first contemporary Native woman’s story ever produced in film history, called A Girl Called Hatter Fox. And I met Leonard and Jennifer Warnes at the Troubadour. They were sitting there at the Troubadour, and I was there with Buzzy Linhart. And I went over to Leonard. And he said, you know, “You’re the most beautiful person I’ve ever seen,” and blah blah. Anyway, we got together, to make a long story short, and he ended up taking me into A&M Records to produce my first record. And we, to this — even before his passing, he was getting ready to write the foreword to my book. And we were very close.

AMY GOODMAN: Joanelle, can you talk about what you’re doing tonight in Auburn, New York? You don’t live there.

JOANELLE ROMERO: Yes.

AMY GOODMAN: And we’re speaking to in a noisy hotel lobby. You just landed. So, tell us what you’re doing on this Indigenous Peoples’ Day.

JOANELLE ROMERO: Well, I’m here to honor the legacy of my dear sister, friend, Joanne Shenandoah. She was the most prolific, traditional, contemporary Native woman singer in the history of everything. She was the best of the best. She was profound. Her voice was angelic. When you would hear Joanne, you can hear an orchestra. Even when she would sing melodically, you can hear an orchestra. She was amazing, amazing talent. And she has a huge legacy. And for the future of up-and-coming Native women musicians, Joanne Shenandoah has — you can learn a lot from listening to her and looking up who Joanne Shenandoah was and —

AMY GOODMAN: Yes, we’ve played her music on Democracy Now!

JOANELLE ROMERO: Oh good. Yeah. So, that’s what I’m here. I’m here to do a concert. It’s with family. I’m a relative of the Haudenosaunee Nation. I have a nephew here. And I’m very honored and grateful to be here, too.

AMY GOODMAN: Your final thoughts, Joanelle Romero, on this Indigenous Peoples’ Day, which is observed in over a hundred cities, from Berkeley to Los Angeles, states, as well — Colorado, South Dakota — what this day means and what you hope we all take away from it?

JOANELLE ROMERO: Well, I believe that the Indigenous Peoples’ Day would not have manifested if it wasn’t for other organizations that have been in the background working really hard to make this happen. And I’ll give you an example. Our Red Nation Celebration Institute launched — founded the American Indian Heritage Month in the city of Los Angeles. In 2006, it was officially recognized. And from doing that, I think that the motivation and the determination of a lot of people were able to bring forth this Indigenous Peoples’ Day.

And the significance of this is monumental, because — especially for our youth coming up, to see themselves, to relate to the accurate history, the authentic history of this world — right? — of this Indigenous world, of this Indigenous land that we’re all on. And, I mean, I’m just grateful to see it in my lifetime. I’m grateful for all the people behind the scenes that have made it happen. And the significance is huge. It’s such a big question, because there’s so many — it’s the generational, historical trauma and so forth. To come to this point where we today are here seeing this happen is a miracle. It’s going to be life-changing for future generations. They’re going to be able to have a ground, a land that they can stand on, and really say this is Indigenous peoples’ land. This is our day. Every day is Indigenous Peoples’ Day.

AMY GOODMAN: Joanelle Romero, we thank you so much for being with us, actress, filmmaker, musician, the first Native American female member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Her film, American Holocaust: When It’s All Over I’ll Still Be Indian, was short-listed for an Academy Award. She’s Apache-Diné, founder and president of Red Nation Television Network and Red Nation International Film Festival. To see more about Sacheen, you can go to democracynow.org. I’m Amy Goodman. Thanks for joining us.

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