You might not know her name, but you’ve probably seen the video that made her famous. In 1973, actress and activist Sacheen Littlefeather took the stage at the Oscars dressed in a beaded buckskin dress in place of Marlon Brando, after he was awarded Best Actor for his role as Vito Corleone in “The Godfather.” Claiming Apache heritage, she spoke eloquently, to a backdrop of boos, of the mistreatment of Native Americans by the film industry and beyond.
The blowback was swift and brutal.
Presenters ridiculed her during the broadcast. She told reporters that John Wayne had to be held back by six security guards to prevent him from rushing the stage and assaulting her. In taped interviews this year with the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences shortly before her death, Littlefeather said that going onstage that night led to her being blacklisted from the entertainment business.
As the decades passed, however, the calm dignity with which she conducted herself that night, easily viewable on Youtube, won over many critics. And interviews she gave in the intervening years, describing a childhood of poverty growing up in a shack, where she and her white mother were victims of domestic abuse and violence by her White Mountain Apache and Yaqui Indian father, made her story a sympathetic one. As such, she enjoyed incredible public support when it was announced months ago that the Academy would finally apologize to her after nearly 50 years.
Sacheen Littlefeather at the 1973 Oscars.
The death of the “Apache activist and actress,” as she was described in her New York Times obituary earlier this month and in thousands of articles over the years, was mourned widely and uncritically.
In one of her final interviews, Littlefeather told The Chronicle that she took the stage at the Oscars because “I spoke my heart, not for me, myself, as an Indian woman but for we and us, for all Indian people … I had to speak the truth. Whether or not it was accepted, it had to be spoken on behalf of Native people.”
But Littlefeather didn’t tell the truth that night. That’s because, according to her biological sisters, Rosalind Cruz and Trudy Orlandi, Littlefeather isn’t Native at all.
“It’s a lie,” Orlandi told me in an exclusive interview. “My father was who he was. His family came from Mexico. And my dad was born in Oxnard.”
“It is a fraud,” Cruz agreed. “It’s disgusting to the heritage of the tribal people. And it’s just … insulting to my parents.”
Littlefeather’s sisters both said in separate interviews that they have no known Native American/American Indian ancestry. They identified as “Spanish” on their father’s side and insisted their family had no claims to a tribal identity.
“I mean, you’re not gonna be a Mexican American Princess,” Orlandi said of her sister’s adoption of a fraudulent identity. “You’re gonna be an American Indian princess. It was more prestigious to be an American Indian than it was to be Hispanic in her mind.”
The sisters reached out to tell me their story because, for some time, I have been compiling a public list of alleged “Pretendians” — non-Native people who I or other Native American people suspect or proved to have manufactured their Native identities for personal gain. Littlefeather was among them.
I put the list together in January 2021, after the New York Times published an opinion article by Claudia Lawrence to mark the nomination of Rep. Deb Haaland, D-N.M., a Laguna Pueblo tribal member, to be secretary of the interior. Lawrence falsely claimed her late husband’s tribal identity and stole a historical moment for Native women by mimicking a Native woman’s perspective as she talked down to the interior secretary in the country’s paper of record. I found this infuriating and began compiling a list that generations of Native people have been building since the 1960s to unmask ethnic frauds.
Littlefeather caught my eye.
Her claim to White Mountain Apache heritage, a federally recognized tribe in Arizona with official enrollment policies and a long history of isolation from Spanish colonialism, was especially curious. Littlefeather was born in Salinas, the hometown of “Grapes of Wrath” author John Steinbeck, under the name Maria Louise Cruz in 1946. Her parents were Manuel Ybarra Cruz and Gertrude Barnitz. My review of her father’s side of the family tree, where she claimed her Native heritage, found no documented ties between his extended family and any extant Native American nations in the United States.
Sacheen Littlefeather took part in “An Evening with Sacheen Littlefeather” at the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures on Sept. 17 in Los Angeles.
I did, however, find family records in Mexico going back to 1850. Marriage and baptismal records do not place the Cruz or Ybarra families near White Mountain Apache territory in Arizona — and they weren’t near Yaqui communities in Mexico, either. Instead, the Cruz line goes to a village that is now part of Mexico City. Mexican Catholic baptismal records and U.S. military registration cards from World War I and World War II of the Ybarra men (their grandmother’s brothers) place distant family in Pima/O’odham (formerly Papago) tribal territory in Sonora, Mexico. However, Brian Haley, a scholar of California and Sonoran tribes, told me that these are communities where tribal members would have been a distinct minority.
All of the family’s cousins, great-aunts, uncles and grandparents going back to about 1880 (when their direct ancestors crossed the border from Mexico) identified as white, Caucasian and Mexican on key legal documents in the United States. None of their relatives married anyone who identified as Native American or American Indian. All of their spouses also identified as either white, Caucasian or Mexican. White Mountain Apache tribal officials I spoke with told me they found no record of either Littlefeather or her family members, living or dead, being enrolled in the White Mountain Apache.
A review of five decades of media reports about Littlefeather showed that her claims of affiliation with the White Mountain Apache began after she was a student at San Jose State in the late 1960s and local Bay Area news outlets reported on her burgeoning modeling career. On Jan. 14, 1971, the Oakland Tribune published a photo of her and identified her as Sacheen Littlefeather. A few days later, KRON news filmed a short modeling video of her wearing Native-inspired outfits. And on March 28, 1971, the San Francisco Examiner featured a photo of her with Cheri Nordwall, an Ojibwe/Shoshone activist, where Littlefeather is described as “White Mountain Apache.” In the decades following, she also claimed to be of Yaqui descent. There is one federally recognized Pascua Yaqui tribe in Arizona, but she never claimed that tribe specifically.
Trudy Orlandi (left) and Rosalind Cruz pose with family photos that include their sister Marie Louise Cruz, who later took the name Sacheen Littlefeather.
The sisters told me that their family never claimed this heritage growing up. After hearing her sister’s stories, Cruz checked with White Mountain Apache authorities to see if she or anyone in her family were members of the tribe. She says no enrollment records were found. The sisters also assert that Littlefeather’s stories about their violent and impoverished upbringing were also patently false.
On Dec. 6, 1974, the Berkeley Gazette quoted Littlefeather calling herself “an urban Indian.”
“Never saw a reservation till I was 17,” she said. “I lived in a shack in Salinas, Cal. I remember the day we got a toilet, and I brought the neighborhood kids in and gave them the tour.”
“That infuriates me,” her sister Orlandi said when told of the quote. “Our house had a toilet … And it’s not a shack, OK, I have pictures of it. Of course, we had a toilet.”
Both sisters insist that their primary goal in coming forward is to restore the truth about their parents, who they said were good, hard-working and caring people.
They both insisted that Littlefeather assumed the life story of their father, who in no way resembled her characterization of a violent Apache alcoholic who terrorized them and their white mother.
“My father was deaf and he had lost his hearing at 9 years old through meningitis,” Cruz said. “He was born into poverty. His father, George Cruz, was an alcoholic who was violent and used to beat him. And he was passed to foster homes and family. But my sister Sacheen took what happened to him.”
In a separate interview, Orlandi agreed: “My father’s father, George, he was the alcoholic. My dad never drank. My dad never smoked. And you know, she also blasted him and said my father was mentally ill. My father was not mentally ill.”
As to Littlefeather’s claims she was taken from her “mentally ill” parents at age 3 and “fostered” by her white grandparents, Orlandi noted: “Their house was right next door. It was just like walking out the door to your neighbor’s house.”
When asked how their sister, who they knew by the nickname “Deb” growing up, came up with her “Indian” name, Orlandi recalled how the sisters all used to make their clothes in 4-H. The spools of thread and ribbon were made by a company called the Sasheen Ribbon Co. They suspect that this may have been the inspiration for Sacheen.
Littlefeather claimed the name was given to her by a member of the Navajo Nation (the largest tribe in the United States, located in Utah, Arizona and New Mexico) at Alcatraz. In 1969, American Indian activists took over the island and, as it was disused federal property, demanded it be given to them, citing treaties. Littlefeather claimed the name meant “Little Bear” in Navajo. It doesn’t. That would be “shush yazh.” It is also not the custom of Diné people, as Navajo call ourselves (I’m an enrolled citizen of the Navajo Nation) to name people after animals.
Furthermore, Littlefeather was never at Alcatraz, LaNada Warjack told me in an interview. The long-time Shoshone activist and Bay Area resident would know: As the president of the Native American students organization at UC Berkeley in 1968, she was one of the student leaders at Alcatraz. She lived on the island for the entire occupation spanning 18 months.
At the 1973 Academy Awards ceremony, Sacheen Littlefeather refuses the Oscar for Best Actor on behalf of Marlon Brando, who won for his role in “The Godfather.” She carries a letter from Brando in which he explains he refused the award in protest the treatment of the Native Americans.
“We never really knew her until the Oscar night,” Warjack said. “We thought that was really cool. That same year she did a spread in Playboy magazine. We knew no Native would do that. Especially during the 70s …The last thing we as Native women wanted anyone to think of us was as sex objects.”
Neither sister knows where the name “Littlefeather” came from. Orlandi scoffed at her sister’s statements that she got the name from her father when she danced before him, holding a single feather aloft.
“That she danced in front of my father and always wore a feather in her hair, in her head? And that’s when my father called her ‘Littlefeather?’ That’s another fantasy.”
News coverage of her burgeoning attempts to make a name for herself in the entertainment world hint at a possible reason for assuming a Native identity. About four months before Littlefeather appeared at the Oscars, on Sept. 28, 1972, legendary Chronicle columnist Herb Caen wrote a piece about a turn for the worse in her modeling career:
“Sacheen Littlefeather, the Bay Area Indian Princess, and nine other tribal beauties are sore at Hugh Hefner. Playboy ordered pictures of them, riding horseback nude in Woodside and other beauty spots, and then Hefner rejected the shots (by Mark Fraser and Mike Kornafel) as ‘not erotic enough.’ Why do them in the first place? ‘Well,’ explained Littlefeather ‘everybody says black is beautiful — we wanted to show that red is, too.’ ”
Like many aspiring actors, this was assuredly not how Littlefeather’s dream of stardom was supposed to go. But perhaps it was better than being ignored.
Cruz remembers Littlefeather’s desperate attempts to break into the industry. She recalls once meeting director Francis Ford Coppola as a 16-year-old high school student while visiting her sister in San Francisco. Littlefeather lived in a large, beautiful apartment with her husband in Pacific Heights. Littlefeather had spotted the director moving furniture into a house in her neighborhood. She approached him and got an invitation to come over for a visit.
Cruz recalls her big sister putting on “all this makeup on. And I said, ‘What are you doing?’ This man is just asking us to come over for, you know, casual. Just to hang out with people. So anyway, I was thinking, ‘Oh, brother.’ And then she brings her portfolio. I said, ‘Are you kidding me?’ ”
The sisters said that the toll of the lies told by their sister over the years was hard to bear. But they didn’t speak out, as they thought their sister’s fame would eventually dissipate. Now, they said, it is troubling to see Littlefeather “being venerated as a saint.”
Could their family have some distant drop of Indigenous blood from hundreds of years ago? It’s possible; many people of Mexican descent do. But Indigenous identity is more complicated than that. A U.S. citizen of distant French descent does not get to claim French citizenship. And it would be absurd for that person to wear a beret on stage at the Oscars and speak on behalf of the nation of France. The White Mountain Apache is a very specific tribe with very specific rules of membership. Falsely claiming its heritage, using it to become a spokesperson and relying on dangerous tropes about an abusive Indian father to bolster that fable did real damage.
Both Cruz and Orlandi learned of their big sister’s death via online news. Neither was invited to the funeral and did not know when it was taking place until a priest contacted them.
When asked if she thought Littlefeather’s life or career would have been better if she had never claimed to be American Indian, Orlandi demurred. “Sacheen did not like herself. She didn’t like being Mexican. So, yes, it was better for her that way to play someone else.”
“The best way that I could think of summing up my sister is that she created a fantasy,” her younger sister said. “She lived in a fantasy, and she died in a fantasy.”
Jacqueline Keeler is a Diné/Dakota writer living in Portland, Ore., and the author of “Standing Rock, the Bundy Movement, and the American Story of Sacred Lands.”