While the Academy of Motion Motion Picture Arts and Sciences had to deal with furor this week over the “snubs” of Greta Gerwig and Margot Robbie, it still reaped glowing headlines by announcing that Lily Gladstone had been nominated for best actress.
With her Blackfeet and Nez Perce heritage, Gladstone became the first Native American to be nominated for a leading actor award in the Academy’s 96-year history. She’s being honored for her performance as Mollie Burkhart, the real-life Osage woman in the 1920s whose White husband was part of a conspiracy to systemically murder her and her family to gain control of their oil-rich land in Oklahoma
“It’s something that I wasn’t sure I would see in my career, in my lifetime,” Gladstone told The New York Times on Tuesday. “I hope that it just means that people start caring more and learning more about these histories.”
Gladstone is right to hope. Unfortunately, the organization honoring her has a problematic history when it comes to “caring” about indigenous people and their histories.
Sacheen Littlefeather, a Native American activist, tells the audience at the Academy Awards ceremony in Los Angeles, March 27, 1973, that Marlon Brando was declining to accept his Oscar as best actor for his role in “The Godfather.” Sacheen Littlefeather died Sunday, Oct. 2, 2022, at her home in Marin County, Calif. She was 75. (AP Photo/File)
Notably, Native Americans appear to be absent from the Academy’s gleaming, 2-year-old museum along the Los Angeles Miracle Mile. Meanwhile, the museum’s idea of addressing Hollywood’s decades of discrimination against indigenous people was to pay tribute to Bay Area activist Sacheen Littlefeather in 2022. A short time later, an investigative report and Littlefeather’s own sisters alleged that she was a attention-seeking fabulist who spent decades falsely claiming to be White Mountain Apache and Yaqui.
During a visit to the museum on Monday, it was surprising to find no Native American artists or stories represented in four floors of gallery space, amid otherwise dazzling, high-tech displays and valuable memorabilia dedicated to science-fiction movies, the making of “Casablanca,” “The Godfather” and “Boyz n the Hood” and the works of other diverse filmmakers, such as John Waters, Pedro Almodovar, Agnes Varda and Lourdes Portillo.
There also appear to be no displays focusing on Westerns, the once-dominant genre that has been around since the dawn of Hollywood and that at one point was responsible for nearly one-fifth of the industry’s feature-film output. Native American characters began regularly appearing in Westerns in the early 1900s, though they almost always were relegated to supporting roles in dramas about White settlers conquering the wilderness. As Chickasaw author Anthony Perry wrote in the Daily Beast, Hollywood films long “depicted us as either violent savages or the dignified bearers of a bygone age.”
TORONTO, ONTARIO – SEPTEMBER 11: Honoree Buffy Sainte-Marie, recipient of the Jeff Skoll Award in Impact Media presented by Participant Media, poses backstage at the TIFF Tribute Awards Gala during the 2022 Toronto International Film Festival at The Fairmont Royal York Hotel on September 11, 2022 in Toronto, Ontario. (Photo by Tommaso Boddi/Getty Images) Tommaso Boddi/Getty Images
Perry’s essay argued that the Academy continues to “dishonor” Native Americans film artists because its only idea of celebrating their contributions thus far has been to showcase Littlefeather, as well as Oscar-winning singer-songwriter Buffy Sainte-Marie. Like Littlefeather, Sainte-Marie was recently accused of misleading the public about her heritage.
These women are featured in a gallery dedicated to significant moments in the history of the Oscars ceremony. Littlefeather appears in a rotating display of clips from notable acceptance speeches. Littlefeather enjoyed her 15 minutes of fame after she took the stage on Marlon Brando’s behalf to reject his best actor award for “The Godfather.” At the podium, Littlefeather identified herself as Apache and said Brando refused his Oscar to protest the negative stereotyping of American Indians in entertainment.
Boos erupted from the audience. In later interviews, Littlefeater shared the evidently apochyral claim that “six security men” needed to stop John Wayne, the he-man star of “Stage Coach,” “The Searchers” and other classic Westerns, from rushing out from the wings to assault her.
Courtesy of Brando, Littlefeather delivered a message that Hollywood and the rest of America needed to hear. Nearly a half century later, the Academy museum made an effort to acknowledge this message by publicly praising Littlefeather as the “first Native woman” to stand on the Oscars stage.
But after Littlefeather died in Marin County in October 2022, the Academy became embroiled in controversy about her being a “Pretendian,” a high-profile figure in entertainment, academia or publishing who falsifies a Native American identity for money, fame or professional opportunities. Littlefeather’s sisters came forward to share that her real name is Marie Louise Cruz and that she was born in Salinas to a middle-class Mexican father and a White mother with European ancestry.
Initially, the Academy staunchly defended its celebration of Littlefeather by saying that it accepted her “self-identification” as Native American. But this institutional practice of relying on “self-identification” for indigenous people has come under scrutiny, amid investigations into “Pretendians.” It’s also possible that the Academy has quietly acknowledged disputes about Littlefeather’s identity. Perry and other scholars have noticed that the museum appeared to have altered a sign displayed near her Oscars speech video to remove mention of her proclaimed heritage.
In the same gallery showing Littlefeather’s Oscars speech, the museum also displays a 1984 photo of Sainte-Marie, posing with the Oscar she won for co-writing the song, “Up Where We Belong” from the 1982 film, “An Officer and a Gentleman.”
For nearly four decades, Sainte-Marie has been hailed as the first Indigenous person to win an Oscar. She claimed to be born on the Piapot First Nation in Saskatchewan and adopted as an infant by a White family in Massachusetts. But a detailed investigation by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s Fifth Estate, which included interviews with family members and an examination of her birth certificate, showed that she was born in Massachusetts to the parents whom she claimed adopted her.
The Academy Museum did not respond to emails this week, asking about the apparent lack of Native American artists and stories in its galleries. The museum also did not respond to a question about whether it has considered mounting a future show that could meaningfully address the Native American experience in Hollywood. The museum has managed to mount retrospectives on other marginalized artists and genres, including a show last year on Black cinema, which revealed a century of overlooked contributions by Black artists.
But if the museum needs ideas for a show on Native American contributions, Perry and others can suggest a number of artists to be featured. Some also are mentioned in the 2022 book, Hollywood’s Native Americans by author and historian Angela Aleiss.
Wes Studi arrives at the Dec. 14 premiere of “Hostiles” in Beverly Hills. (Frazer Harrison/Getty Images)
There’s Edwin Carewe, a Chickasaw citizen and a pioneer of the early sound era, who acted in, directed and produced a number of critically and financially successful films from 1907 to 1934. There’s also Will Sampson, a citizen of the Mvskoke (Creek) Nation, who acted in “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” and “The Outlaw Josey Wales.” As an activist, Sampson worked to encourage Hollywood to aim for cultural authenticity and to end its practice of using non-Native to fill Native roles.
There also are performers with direct Oscar connections. As Hollywood’s first Native American movie star, vaudeville performer and social commentator Will Rogers emceed and presented trophies at the 1934 Oscars ceremony, at which Katharine Hepburn received her first Oscar. Two indigenous men also were previously nominated for best supporting actor: Chief Dan George, a chief of the Tsleil-Waututh Nation in British Columbia, for his role in “Little Big Man” in 1970,and Graham Greene, an Oneida from the Six Nations Reserve in Ontario, who co-starred in Kevin Costner’s 1990 best-picture winner, “Dances With Wolves.” In addition, there’s Wes Studi, a Cherokee actor and producer who starred in “The Last of the Mohicans.” He received an honorary Academy Award in 2019 for his contributions to the industry.
While it’s understandable that the museum might not want to remove Littlefeather’s Oscars speech because of its historic significance, it could add another Native American voice to its collection of reels. At the 1991 ceremony, Doris Leader Charge, an educator from the Rosebud Sioux Tribe in South Dakota was invited on stage to offer a Lakota translation of a speech by William Blake, who had just won the Oscar for best adapted screenplay for “Dances With Wolves.” The audience of nearly 6,000 broke out into applause when Blake introduced his “friend Doris Leader Charge who played a critical role in our film,” according to Aleiss’ book.
“Her appearance during the Academy Awards not only momentarily placed her in the global spotlight but drew attention to Native Americans who over the decades had made small but significant contributions to the movie industry,” Aleiss wrote.
Intentionally or not, Gladstone seemed to replicate that 1991 moment in her speech at the Golden Globes, when she also made history by winning a best actress award there. She began her speech by speaking in the Blackfeet language, which she admitted she wasn’t fluent in.
But she said she wanted to celebrate one of the Native languages that were never spoken in Hollywood films. “Native actors used to speak their lines in English and then the sound mixers would run them backwards to accomplish Native languages on camera,” she said.
Gladstone memorably concluded her speech by saying that her win is “for every little res kid, every little urban kid, every little Native kid out there who has a dream, who is seeing themselves represented in our stories told by ourselves in our own words with tremendous allies and tremendous trust from within from each other.”