The Christmas-shopping season seems to start a day or two earlier each year. The entire month of February is swallowed whole annually by the pink-and-red V-Day products that come to festoon every major retail space in the developed world. Even the weeks leading up to Halloween are overcome with spooky cereal sales and five-cent plastic masks. Yet somehow, after all this time, the reputation of the most American holiday we have has remained pristine in the face of ever-encroaching corporatization. There are no tacky front-porch decorations or talking mall turkeys to distract the national consciousness from the true meaning of Thanksgiving: family—and, of course, food.
So when people bring up the historical context of Thanksgiving it tends to be seen as kind of a buzzkill: nobody wants to talk about the genocide of Native Americans when there’s pumpkin pie to eat, after all! In all fairness, it’s true that no one has ever changed the world by railing at their drunken uncle about historical bias across the dinner table. But it takes a special kind of moxie to stick it to the reveling masses and crusade for a cause even though you know you’re only going to stir up trouble for yourself. Now that the holidays are officially upon us, so is another vaunted type of season—that of the Oscar campaign trail—so in tribute to both of the above it’s time to take another look at the most divisive pop cultural icon of 1973: Sacheen Littlefeather.
Littlefeather pissed off a lot of people when she refused Marlon Brando’s Oscar for The Godfather on his behalf, instead using the ceremony to call attention to the incident at Wounded Knee and Hollywood’s historically poor representation of American Indians. At the time, Littlefeather was an aspiring actress with a patchwork collection of questionable show business accomplishments to her name: winner of the 1970 Miss American Vampire contest, for one, as well as one of ten Native American models to pose in 1972 for an Indian-themed Playboy shoot that was ultimately canned in light of the Wounded Knee incident. After the Oscars controversy sent Littlefeather skyrocketing into the public consciousness, Playboy ran the shots of her in a later issue, killing whatever traces of hope might have remained for Littlefeather’s acting career after the Academy Awards; what’s more, as far as her detractors were concerned, Littlefeather’s Playboy feature only lent credence to the circulating rumor that she wasn’t even Native American at all—that she was a stripper who had been hired by the notoriously stardom-averse Brando to put on a rented dress and make a scene at Hollywood’s version of senior prom.
But Littlefeather, born in 1947 in Salinas, California, is the real deal—and her bona fides far precede her notorious Academy Awards appearance. In 1969, Littlefeather participated in the occupation of Alcatraz organized by the activist organization Indians of All Tribes in protest against the U.S. government’s resistance to native land claims. The protest put her in touch with influential Native activists like Wilma Mankiller and John Trudell. However, after her speech at the Oscars—which she improvised on the spot after being told that she would be forcibly removed from the stage if she tried to deliver Brando’s 15-page statement—Littlefeather became notorious in her own right; the FBI even visited members of the entertainment industry personally in order to ensure the end of Littlefeather’s Hollywood career. Nor did her rabblerousing work stop there: in the early 1980s she led the crusade against AIDS in the American Indian community, even working alongside Mother Teresa to care for AIDS patients in hospices. She even found her way back into the world of film, briefly, as a producer of Native American films like PBS’s Dance in America: A Song for Dead Warriors, for which she was co-awarded an Emmy in 1984. And throughout it all she’s apparently retained the magnetism that so transfixed the American public when she took the stage at the Oscars in 1973—a People Magazine profile from 1990 makes mention of a 23-year-old live-in boyfriend. No news as to whether that boyfriend is still around. Either way, though, Littlefeather—now 66 years old and a recent survivor of breast cancer—is by all appearances tougher than ever.