Actor and activist Sacheen Littlefeather passed away at the age of 75 on Oct. 2, 2022 after battling cancer. Apache and Yaqui, Littlefeather made history as the first indigenous person to speak at the podium at the Oscars and drew national attention to the American Indian Movement’s Wounded Knee protests. She went on to found the National American Indian Performing Arts Registry.
During a year where controversy at the Oscars was as big of a topic of discussion as it has been in recent memory, celebrating the life of Littlefeather evokes images of one of the awards ceremony’s ugliest, yet telling, moments. In 1973, Littlefeather delivered a speech at the Oscars on behalf of Marlon Brando, who was boycotting the ceremony to protest the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ treatment of indigenous people. She was booed and mocked by many in the audience. Reportedly, John Wayne, who became a Hollywood icon for Western films that dehumanized indigenous people as a staple of the genre, tried to physically remove Littlefeather from the stage and had to be restrained by security guards. Clint Eastwood mocked Littlefeather on stage later. Following that night, she faced discrimination and personal attacks in retaliation for daring to speak out.
The Academy didn’t issue a formal apology to Littlefeather until earlier this summer, almost 50 years later. Littlefeather herself expressed shock to the press that she lived to see this happen. Many indigenous activists, scholars and writers have noted that the same racist Hollywood portrayals Littlefeather spoke out against in 1973, such as imagery that paints indigenous people as if they’re permanently stuck in the 18th and 19th century, still persist to this day.
As we celebrate Indigenous Peoples’ Day 2022, the parallels are obvious. The holiday, which celebrates and commemorates the histories and cultures of indigenous people in this country, was only formally recognized on a national level in 2021 by President Joe Biden. It was first celebrated in South Dakota in 1990 as Native American Day after the legislature voted to replace Columbus Day the year prior. It gained more steam nationally in 1992 when people in Berkeley, California celebrated the holiday to mark the 500th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’ arrival and subsequent acceleration of the brutal colonization of the Western Hemisphere.
Oregon joined twelve states and Washington, D.C. in 2021 in officially choosing to not just honor Indigenous Peoples’ Day on the second Monday of October, but to explicitly no longer recognize Columbus Day. Like the Academy’s apology to Littlefeather, it was a step in the right direction but also egregiously overdue and emblematic of how much more work there is to do.
For example, our University of Oregon campus sits on occupied land. Specifically, these grounds belong to the Kalapuya, Confederated Tribes of the Grand Ronde, Confederated Tribes of the Siletz Indians, Chelamela and Winefelly people. Even with the increased integration of land acknowledgements into our events and programming, we still have a ways to go to ensure this is common knowledge to all in our campus community.
To take it a step further, we are not far removed from celebrating the determination of people protesting in the streets, especially following the summer of 2020, chanting things like “land back.” Fast forward to 2022 and we’re witnessing those same calls for justice being increasingly and openly demonized to weaponize the politics of white resentment. What role the UO, as an institution with one of the most outsized platforms in the state, chooses to play at this moment in history will be remembered for decades to come, if not longer.
We must move with urgency, purpose and intentionality to advance substantive action including, but not limited to consistently meaningful resources, recognition and moral support for the Sapsik’ʷałá (Teacher) Education Program, NILI and Native American faculty and staff. We must truly embed understandings and practices of reciprocity, Indigenous sovereignty and respectful government to government relationships into our university policies and procedures and we must ensure that our curriculum is infused with Indigenous knowledge, methods and ways of knowing. Finally, we must focus renewed attention to recruiting and retaining Native undergraduate and graduate students, whose percentage of our student body has not increased meaningfully over the last five years. Furthermore, we must build with those in our campus and surrounding communities who have been leading these efforts.
We lift up the work of those in our campus community like the Native American Student Union, Native American and Indigenous Studies, the Native American Strategies Group, the Native American Law Student Association and the Many Nations Longhouse. As we recognize Indigenous People’s Day and get ready to celebrate Native American Heritage Month, let’s take this time to examine how we all can work to achieve justice and build genuine community with those for whom these lands belong.
Professor of Political Science and
Vice President for Equity and Inclusion