From yesterday’s New York Times: “The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has apologized to Sacheen Littlefeather, an Apache and Yaqui actress and activist who was booed onstage at the Oscars in 1973 after she refused the best actor award on behalf of Marlon Brando.”
The article goes on to say that Ms. Littlefeather refused the Oscar on behalf of Brando because of his concern with the mistreatment and stereotyping of Native Americans in film and television, and by government’s recent actions at Wounded Knee. Her speaking time was limited, and John Wayne had to be restrained from attacking her as she left the stage. Later that evening, when she went to Brando’s house, shots were fired through the door at her. Littlefeather was blacklisted by Hollywood and never worked again in film.
I’ve loved Brando since “On the Waterfront.” I’m not a film buff, so the images I have of him are few—from that film, and one from his appearance in a 1964 “fish-in” in Washington State. The “fish wars,” that ran from the early 60s until the Judge Boldt decision in 1974, pitted officials from Oregon and Washington against tribal members asserting their rights to fish in “usual and accustomed places” off-reservation.
Fish wars now are about saving salmon and steelhead from extirpation. Today, most non-Natives are accustomed to and even applaud the efforts of tribal fisheries programs at Lapwai, Yakima, and Umatilla to protect and restore fish runs. Republican Representative Mike Simpson, a conservative from conservative Idaho, is promoting breaching lower Snake River dams. His proposed legislation would have money to compensate grain farmers reliant on river barges out of Lewiston, and to find ways to make up for electricity lost with dam breaching. The rest of the Northwest congressional delegations seem split or waffling on the issue, although Washington Senator Patty Murray and Governor Inslee just released a draft report on projected costs, and appear ready to offer some support. Ditto, the Biden administration. Simpson easily one his party’s May primary heading into this fall’s election.
It is hard to remember a time when the non-Native population was overwhelmingly opposed to Indians exercising treaty rights. Hard to remember a time when Brando would give up an Oscar to support Indians—and be widely criticized by his movieland peers. And hard to remember a time when a Native actor and activist could be shot at for supporting Brando in his concern for her people, and be blacklisted for espousing Native rights.
These reminders—of Native resistance and activism, and of celebrity support of Native American causes—tell us many things. There has always been Native resistance. How else to explain the survival of language and culture. And that resistance has often been led by Native women, from Lozen, the two spirit Apache warrior who fought alongside Geronimo, to Cherokee Chief Wilma Mankiller, Poet Laureate Joy Harjo, new US Treasurer Marilyn Malerba, Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland and our good neighbor and Tamastslikt Director, Bobbie Conner.
And there have always been non-Native supporters, sometimes famous ones like Brando, but lesser-known ones too, people from the earliest days of colonialism to present who have supported American Indians.
It is heartening in this new time to see apology. Neither the Motion Picture Academy or the Pope can redo what was done so brutally in the past, but these public apologies and acknowledgements of Native rights and wisdom warm the heart and promise a better today and tomorrow.
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