My mother used to say that an apology was the least anyone could do, implying by the tone of her voice it certainly wasn’t the most they could do. Whether she knew to or not — my mother made an insight about power, pride, and contrariness in the United States. When you’re young, taking that first step that should be the easiest often seems the hardest. But although our country is old enough to know better, refusing to do even the least and apologize is the American way.
This month, a major American cultural institution made a long, long overdue apology. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences reached out to make amends with Native American actress and model, Sacheen Littlefeather, finally deigning to admit the treatment she suffered at the 1973 Oscars was “unwarranted and unjustified.”
Littlefeather, who is now seventy-five years old, commented “We Indians are very patient people — it’s only been 50 years!” Fifty years ago, Littlefeather was greeted with taunts and jeers at the 1973 Oscars. She spoke at the request of Marlon Brando who supported Native American causes and planned to make a statement if he received an Oscar for his performance in “The Godfather.”
“I’m Sacheen Littlefeather” the actress began, “Marlon Brando asked me to tell you that he cannot accept this very generous award, and the reasons for this being the treatment of American Indians today by the film industry and television.”
If you watch, you’ll see it wasn’t long before the jeers began. You’ll see how hurt Sacheen looks, batting her eyes, while determined to confront her adversaries unflinchingly. The rudeness that was shown to her should put the Academy Award of Motion Pictures to shame — both then and now. From the podium, Littlefeather witnessed countless mouths dropping open.
“I just took a deep breath, put my head down for a second, and then, when they quieted down, I continued,” she explained.
She had been warned she would be arrested if she took more than a minute for her speech. And the movie actor John Wayne, standing backstage, shook his fists at her. “John Wayne did not like what I was saying up at the podium. He came forth in a rage to physically assault and take me off the stage. And he had to be restrained by six security men in order for that not to happen,” she recalled.
Wayne’s own movies unapologetically encouraged cultural insensitivity, if not overt racism. But he was a white male star. No one ever booed John Wayne. Instead, Littlefeather became the butt of easy jokes and ridicule. Her speech in 1973 was considered a rude interruption, throwing cold water on Hollywood’s premier self-congratulatory gala. For the next several decades, Littlefeather says she was covertly blacklisted from working in the industry. She became an unemployable pariah, so that Hollywood and the United States could avoid reckoning with the truth.
Littlefeather was rushed and provided one minute on stage to explain the exploitation of Native Americans in the media. Here is Marlon Brando breaking it down. Nearly every night on TV, he comments in this YouTube video, Americans see harmful images of “leering Filipino houseboys” and “drunken Indians.” America’s history with Native Americans is a litany of broken treaties, disingenuous promises, and massacres. Crude Hollywood stereotypes added insult to injury.
Now the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has invited Littlefeather to speak during a special program featuring Indigenous performers. The Academy’s gesture may be well-intended. Or better late than never. But I have to join Littlefeather in asking why fifty years have passed? The tardiness reflects America’s stubborn unwillingness to apologize.
A sincere apology is predicated on full, total, and complete acceptance that the injustice should never have been perpetuated in the first place. The Academy’s apology needs to go further, according to this principle. It needs to issue a thorough apology for its complicity with racism against Blacks, Asians, Arabs, Native Americans and other people of color. The portrayals of Native Americans (especially in John Wayne movies) were heinous, intentional, and deserved censure. That was true then; representations of minorities remain problematic now.
Whether the subject is slavery, segregation, the mistreatment of Native Americans, Japanese internment camps, or torture and war, America’s inability admit its many wrongdoings reflects a national unwillingness to really to commit to saying: Injustice wasn’t forgivable given “the standards of the times.” It was always wrong.
The nation hesitates and stutters defensively, avoiding discussion, reluctantly speaking up — when the country can apologize at all. The rampant conservative anti-Critical Race Theory campaign is another attempt to avoid long overdue conversations and apologies — let alone enacting policies for reparations.
Littlefeather should be congratulated for fighting against the current and unsettling a nation that wants to live in a comfortable bubble. An America that can’t listen and learn from history will never grow.