Icon and legend, actor Marlon Brando once turned down one of the most prestigious awards in Hollywood for reasons opposition to the Dakota Access Pipeline by the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and supporters prove decidedly have yet to be resolved: the trampling of Native American rights and sovereignty.
Brando refused to accept the Academy Award for best actor on March 5, 1973 — amid the ongoing offensive by the U.S. government against the occupation by a group of 200 Oglala Lakota and American Indian Movement activists of the tiny South Dakota town, Wounded Knee, on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation — in part, because the movie industry was propagating the appalling government dehumanization of Native peoples.
“The motion picture community has been as responsible as any for degrading the Indian and making a mockery of his character, describing his as savage, hostile, and evil,” Brando wrote. “It’s hard enough for children to grow up in this world. When Indian children … see their race depicted as they are in films, their minds become injured in ways we can never know.”
Not only did Brando’s rejection of the Oscar swell a tidal wave of controversy in its own right, but how the actor — who played the now-iconic mafioso, Vito Corleone, in “The Godfather” — chose to announce the decision only amplified the storm.
As Business Insider notes, Brando’s reputation behind the scenes prior to the stellar success of instant classic hadn’t won many allies in the industry, and his career seemed headed for the dustbin:
“‘The Godfather’ grossed nearly $135 million nationwide and is heralded as one of the greatest films of all time. Pinned against pinnacles of the silver screen — Michael Caine, Laurence Olivier, and Peter O’Toole — Brando was favored to win best actor.”
However, the night before the Academy Awards were to take place, Brando threw quite the wrench into plans for the glitzy event — by announcing he would boycott.
When the time came for the godfather, himself, to ascend the stage to accept the well-deserved best actor award, the president of the National Native American Affirmative Image Committee and relatively unknown actress, Sacheen Littlefeather, took his place. With long hair pulled to the sides in intricately-beaded ties, the courageous Native American woman came to the podium sporting Brando’s statement, holding an open palm to refuse the prized statuette.
“I’m representing Marlon Brando this evening and he has asked me to tell you … that 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 —”
Jeers from the crowd briefly cut the even-keeled actress short, and she says, “Excuse me,” but other attendees immediately topped detractors in supportive applause, as she continues,
“— and on television, in movie reruns, and also in recent happenings at Wounded Knee. I beg at this time that I have not intruded upon this evening, and that we will, in the future — our hearts and our understandings will meet with love and generosity.”
Due to time constraints, Littlefeather could not read Brando’s lengthy speech to the disquieted crowd, but the media soon received the text — and the actor’s stinging manifesto took industry ignorance, national apathy, and oppressive government to task.
“When they laid down their arms, we murdered them. We lied to them. We cheated them out of their lands. We starved them into signing fraudulent agreements that we called treaties which we never kept. We turned them into beggars on a continent that gave life for as long as life can remember. And by any interpretation of history, however twisted, we did not do right. We were not lawful nor were we just in what we did. For them, we do not have to restore these people, we do not have to live up to some agreements, because it is given to us by virtue of our power to attack the rights of others, to take their property, to take their lives when they are trying to defend their land and liberty, and to make their virtues a crime and our own vices virtues.
“But there is one thing which is beyond the reach of this perversity and that is the tremendous verdict of history. And history will surely judge us. But do we care? What kind of moral schizophrenia is it that allows us to shout at the top of our national voice for all the world to hear that we live up to our commitment when every page of history and when all the thirsty, starving, humiliating days and nights of the last 100 years in the lives of the American Indian contradict that voice?”
Brando continued, his words tragically as pertinent now as they were over four decades ago,
“It would seem that the respect for principle and the love of one’s neighbor have become dysfunctional in this country of ours, and that all we have done, all that we have succeeded in accomplishing with our power is simply annihilating the hopes of the newborn countries in this world, as well as friends and enemies alike, that we’re not humane, and that we do not live up to our agreements.”
Outrage buried Brando and his emissary after the Academy Awards boycott, but nothing could strip the bite of truth from the resounding statement of solidarity in the action and its motivation.
Given the ongoing eviction of camps at Standing Rock, tonight presents a ripe opportunity for an Oscar winner to follow in Marlon Brando’s albeit difficult to fill shoes.