Using the Spotlight

The year is 1973, and, all across America, people are doing what people do every year: they’re watching the Oscars. The hosts announce Marlon Brando as the winner for best performance by an actor for his work in The Godfather, but it is not Marlon Brando who takes the stage. It is Sacheen Littlefeather, an Apache/Yaqui woman who, in less than a minute, declines the award for the treatment of Native Americans by the American film industry and for the current events at Wounded Knee.

What was happening at Wounded Knee? A group of Lakota activists with the American Indian Movement (AIM) had decided to occupy the area to protest corruption in the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation government (particularly the chairman Richard Wilson) and the failure of the American government to uphold the treaties it had made with the indigenous nations. As they were armed, the American government responded in kind, with tanks, grenade launchers, and the FBI laying siege to the town. The activists also appealed directly to the UN to be seen as independent nations, asking for action against the US government.

Marlon Brando contacted Sacheen and asked her to give a speech for him (if he won the award), which would draw attention to the unfair treatment of Native Americans in the film industry as well as the current events at Wounded Knee. However, when she arrived, she was warned that if her speech went over 60 seconds, she would be arrested, so she improvised the short address in the above video.  (The full address can be read here.) The response was a morale boost among the activists, who, of course, were also watching the Oscars. On Sacheen’s part, she received death threats and claims that she wasn’t Native American, in an attempt to discredit both her and the message that she was sending.

The situation at Wounded Knee resolved with a disarmament agreement after 71 days of occupation. 1200 people were arrested and tried, although charges for some of the leaders were dropped because of FBI manipulation of witnesses. Richard Wilson was reelected chairman. But despite this, America started to pay some attention to the problems that Native Americans face, and the activists inspired others to continue to fight.

Sources: Indian Country Media Network, Reel Injun

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