Sacheen Littlefeather was giddy as she hung up the phone in her San Francisco apartment in March of 1973. The caller was Marlon Brando, she told her younger sister, Trudy Orlandi, and he had asked Littlefeather to appear on his behalf at the Academy Awards the following night, in case he won the best actor award for “The Godfather.”
At the time, Brando was a top Hollywood supporter of the American Indian Movement and acquainted with Littlefeather through her neighbor, Francis Ford Coppola. And Brando had decided to cast the 26-year-old aspiring actress as his Oscars proxy to reject the award, denounce the negative stereotyping of American Indians in entertainment and bring attention to the Wounded Knee Occupation protest in South Dakota.
Orlandi didn’t understand Brando’s choice. To her, Sacheen was Marie Louise Cruz from Salinas, and they had a Mexican American father and White mother. But the next night, Orlandi watched on live TV as Sacheen stoically ascended the Oscars stage in a buckskin dress and told a global audience of 85 million that she was Apache.
“It was a moving presentation, but it was a pretend Sacheen,” said Orlandi, who lives in Marin County now. “And White Mountain Apache? Where did that come from?”
To Orlandi, it was the beginning of Littlefeather’s nearly half-century hoax.
Since Littlefeather’s death in Novato on Oct. 2 at age 75, Orlandi, 72, and another sister, Rosalind Cruz, 65, have ignited an uproar in Native American circles by alleging their estranged activist sister spent 50 years faking an identity as White Mountain Apache and Yaqui. They say their sister’s speech was the first time anyone in their Salinas family had ever talked about being Native American.
“It was mortifying,” said Cruz, of Lake County, Montana, of the Oscars appearance. “I thought, ‘Oh great, this is the lengths you will go to to get into acting.’”
The allegations emerged into public view in October when Native American journalist Jacqueline Keeler published an investigation into the Mexican ancestry of Littlefeather’s California-born father, Manuel Cruz. Keeler is known for her aggressive efforts to out alleged “Pretendians,” people who falsely claim to be Native American. Her research, which included records going back to 1850, uncovered no ties between the Cruz family of Mexico and the White Mountain Apache and Yaqui tribes.
None of Littlefeather’s relatives identified as Native American, Keeler said. The Pascua Yaqui tribe in Arizona told this news organization that Littlefeather wasn’t enrolled, while the White Mountain Apache hasn’t responded to media inquiries about her membership.
As the 50th anniversary of Littlefeather’s Oscars moment approaches, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences continues to showcase Littlefeather as an icon of diversity in its glittery new museum in Los Angeles, where she is featured in an exhibit about iconic moments in the award ceremony’s history.
Academy representatives have said the organization recognizes “self-identification.” But it has inserted a disclaimer at the start of a three-hour interview with Littlefeather, posted on its YouTube channel, that says oral histories “should not be understood as statements of fact.” In that interview, Littlefeather claims she was raised in poverty by an abusive alcoholic father and that she was “abandoned” by her parents who were too mentally ill to care for her. Littlefeather’s sisters say those claims are false.
LIttlefeather’s longtime Bay Area friend, Bridget Neconie, said she and others never doubted Littlefeather was Apache or Yaqui. “She couldn’t have been more Native,” said Neconie, an enrolled member of the Pueblo of Acoma of New Mexico and former UC Berkeley assistant director of undergraduate admissions. “Maybe she didn’t have the piece of paper to prove it, but there’s no doubt about who she was.”
Other scholars and activists say Littlefeather’s alleged fraud was “an open secret” for years, and that she obscured, embellished or fabricated biographical details. LaNada War Jack, one of the student organizers of the 19-month-long Native American occupation of Alcatraz that started in 1969, told this news organization: “We applauded her when she spoke at the Oscars” but “we knew she wasn’t Native.”
“It’s one of the biggest hoaxes — certainly the biggest hoax since Iron Eyes Cody,” said Dina Gilio-Whitaker, a Cal State San Marcos lecturer of American Indian Studies who was commissioned at one point to ghostwrite Littlefeather’s memoir. Cody, a second-generation Italian American actor, has become infamous for falsely claiming to be Native American after playing the role in movies, TV and the “Keep America Beautiful” public service ads in the early 1970s.
After Littlefeather’s sisters learned about her death, they went public with their fraud allegations because, they said, their sister’s “lies” maligned their parents, Manuel and Geroldine Cruz. The truth, they say, is that their parents, self-employed makers of horse saddles, raised their three daughters in a loving middle-class home. Geroldine Cruz was not a battered wife or mentally ill, and their hearing-impaired father never touched alcohol or abused his children. He died of cancer when Sacheen was 19, Orlandi said.
It was around the same time Littlefeather reportedly suffered a breakdown. She spent a year in Agnews Insane Asylum in Santa Clara and was diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder, which can include mood swings, hallucinations and delusions.
Helene Hagan, a historian, anthropologist and former longtime friend, believes that Littlefeather’s Native American claims and “delusions” of being “a suffering, victimized woman” began around this time.
Some of Littlefeather’s claims about aiding Native American organizations can be verified. The San Francisco Ballet confirmed she worked as an advisor for the Emmy-winning 1984 telecast of Michael Smuin’s “Song for Dead Warriors,” and she served as a board member of the American Indian AIDS Institute.
Other claims appear to have been exaggerated or are simply false, including that she worked with Mother Teresa on AIDS patients, that she participated in the Native American protest/occupation at Alcatraz and that John Wayne tried to attack her at her Oscars appearance.
Orlandi and Cruz just want the truth to be known about their family.
“My mom was a very sweet, kind person,” Orlandi said. “I never saw my sister being beaten by my dad. … She made this man out to be a monster. This guy cannot protect himself or his name or his reputation.”
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