“Reel Injun,” from Cree filmmaker Neil Diamond, explores the making of the movie Indian, from the very first Edison produced reels to the Native produced films in the present day. It explores how history shaped depictions of Native Americans in film, and the struggle for Native filmmakers to reappropriate themselves in film. Like everything Native, much of the true history of America’s aboriginal peoples in film has happened behind the scenes, with wary a whisper spoken. For example, I never knew that Iron Eyes Cody was Sicilian, not native. Most embarrassingly, I never knew that there was any such thing as a Native cinema today, a cinema which can claim a number of vibrant filmmakers.
Most importantly, I was unaware that Marlon Brando refused his Oscar for “The Godfather.” In his place sent San Francisco Native activist Sacheen Littlefeather to tell the American people about the extent of past and current crimes against America’s Native peoples, the events that were occurring at Wounded Knee as the Oscars were being televised and the insulting manner in which Hollywood portrayed Native Americans up that time. Littlefeather’s agreeing to stand in for Brando was a an act of total bravery.
Brando gave her a speech to present, but a representative of the Oscars threatened to have her arrested if she took too much air time. Worse yet, she was met with boos and derision for her small act of justice.The full text of Brando’s speech is here:
The Unfinished Oscar Speech
By MARLON BRANDO
March 27, 1973
For 200 years we have said to the Indian people who are fighting for their land, their life, their families and their right to be free: ”Lay down your arms, my friends, and then we will remain together. Only if you lay down your arms, my friends, can we then talk of peace and come to an agreement which will be good for you.”
Sacheen Littlefeather 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?
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.
Perhaps at this moment you are saying to yourself what the hell has all this got to do with the Academy Awards? Why is this woman standing up here, ruining our evening, invading our lives with things that don’t concern us, and that we don’t care about? Wasting our time and money and intruding in our homes.
I think the answer to those unspoken questions is that 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. It’s hard enough for children to grow up in this world. When Indian children watch television, and they watch films, and when they see their race depicted as they are in films, their minds become injured in ways we can never know.
Recently there have been a few faltering steps to correct this situation, but too faltering and too few, so I, as a member in this profession, do not feel that I can as a citizen of the United States accept an award here tonight. I think awards in this country at this time are inappropriate to be received or given until the condition of the American Indian is drastically altered. If we are not our brother’s keeper, at least let us not be his executioner.
I would have been here tonight to speak to you directly, but I felt that perhaps I could be of better use if I went to Wounded Knee to help forestall in whatever way I can the establishment of a peace which would be dishonorable as long as the rivers shall run and the grass shall grow.
I would hope that those who are listening would not look upon this as a rude intrusion, but as an earnest effort to focus attention on an issue that might very well determine whether or not this country has the right to say from this point forward we believe in the inalienable rights of all people to remain free and independent on lands that have supported their life beyond living memory.
Thank you for your kindness and your courtesy to Miss Littlefeather. Thank you and good night.