For those too young to remember, when acclaimed method actor Marlon Brando sent Apache activist Sacheen Littlefeather up on stage in 1973 to pick up his Best Actor Oscar for his legendary performance in The Godfather, the shockwaves hit Hollywood harder than a slap from Will Smith.
The beautiful Littlefeather, looking like a modern Disney princess in a buckskin dress, torched Hollywood for its treatment of Native Americans and was met with a bunch of booing celebrities as she explained that Brando “very regretfully cannot accept this very generous award” because the film industry on television and in reruns has treated her people badly.
The stunt cemented Brando’s image as a “difficult” actor, and Littlefeather’s speech would go down in Academy Awards history, right next to Sally Field’s 1985 “You like me!” acceptance speech and Jack Palance doing one-armed pushups.
For nearly 50 years, both Brando and Littlefeather were mercilessly mocked. According to Littlefeather, it took six security guards to keep John Wayne from jumping on stage and “helping” the little lady off the stage.
And while Brando’s career was pretty much over after The Godfather, Littlefeather went on to become a Native American icon.
In subsequent interviews over the years, she described the domestic abuse she and her white mother suffered at the hands of her White Mountain Apache and Yaqui Indian father.
The Academy finally issued a formal apology and invited her to an in-person September event so she could accept it.
But here’s the thing: It turns out, Sacheen Littlefeather is about as Native American as Elizabeth Warren.
According to her biological sisters, Rosalind Cruz and Trudy Orlandi, the family of Littlefeather’s dad wasn’t Native American at all.
“It’s a lie,” Orlandi told the San Francisco Chronicle. “My father was who he was. His family came from Mexico. And my dad was born in Oxnard.
“It is a fraud,” said Cruz. “It’s disgusting to the heritage of the tribal people. And it’s just … insulting to my parents.”
In separate interviews, both Cruz and Orlandi said, to their knowledge, they have no Native American/American Indian in their DNA and, on their father’s side, they identify as “Spanish.”
“I mean, you’re not gonna be a Mexican American princess,” Orlandi reasoned. “You’re gonna be an American Indian princess. It was more prestigious to be an American Indian than it was to be Hispanic in her mind.”
Littlefield was actually born Maria Louise Cruz to parents Manuel Ybarra Cruz and Gertrude Barnitz in 1946, in Salinas, CA, according to Chronicle journalist Jacqueline Keeler.
Her family records in Mexico stretch back to 1850.
“Marriage and baptismal records do not place the Cruz or Ybarra families near White Mountain Apache territory in Arizona — and they weren’t near Yaqui communities in Mexico, either,” Keeler writes.
She didn’t even have relatives who identified as Native American.
“All of the family’s cousins, great-aunts, uncles and grandparents going back to about 1880 (when their direct ancestors crossed the border from Mexico) identified as white, Caucasian and Mexican on key legal documents in the United States,” Keeler reveals. “None of their relatives married anyone who identified as Native American or American Indian. All of their spouses also identified as either white, Caucasian or Mexican.”
So it was all just fiction. A lie created by Littlefeather to further her career as a model.
“On Jan. 14, 1971, the Oakland Tribune published a photo of her and identified her as Sacheen Littlefeather. A few days later, KRON news filmed a short modeling video of her wearing Native-inspired outfits,” Keeler writes. “And on March 28, 1971, the San Francisco Examiner featured a photo of her with Cheri Nordwall, an Ojibwe/Shoshone activist, where Littlefeather is described as ‘White Mountain Apache.'”
Not only that, her claims of poverty were also made up, according to her sisters.
In 1974, Littlefield was quoted as saying, “Never saw a reservation till I was 17. I lived in a shack in Salinas, Cal. I remember the day we got a toilet, and I brought the neighborhood kids in and gave them the tour.”
“That infuriates me,” Orlandi said. “Our house had a toilet … And it’s not a shack, OK, I have pictures of it. Of course, we had a toilet.”
The sisters are exposing their sister, who passed away earlier this month, because they want the truth to be known about their parents, who they say were hard-working, caring people.
“My father’s father, George, he was the alcoholic,” Orlandi said in a separate interview. “My dad never drank. My dad never smoked. And you know, she also blasted him and said my father was mentally ill. My father was not mentally ill.”
“The best way that I could think of summing up my sister is that she created a fantasy,” Orlandi said. “She lived in a fantasy, and she died in a fantasy.”
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