On March 27, 1973, Roger Moore and Liv Ullmann stood together on the Oscar stage. They had to announce the nominees for Best Male Lead: Michael Caine, Laurence Olivier, Marlon Brando, Peter O'Toole and Paul Winfield. Moore gallantly opened the envelope and Ullmann announced the winner: "Marlon Brando for 'The Godfather'!"
Applause, the orchestra played the "godfather" theme - and the stage was not climbed by Brando, but by a young woman in a long robe. Rejecting the statue Moore offered her, she began, "Hi, my name is Sacheen Littlefeather, I'm Apachin and I'm Chair of the National Native American Affirmative Image Committee, and I'm standing here tonight for Marlon Brando." See yourself unable to accept this award because of "the treatment of Indians by the film industry today".
Boos, applause, exit. The name of Sacheen Littlefeather became immortal with this 100-second performance, the career of actress Sacheen Littlefeather, which was just beginning, was over with this performance.
And now, four months after the film academy wrote a letter to Littlefeather apologizing for the awkward consequences her acting had endured, and three weeks after Littlefeather's death from cancer, her sisters revealed that Littlefeather lied about her Native American origins: her Father was Mexican.
What does this mean for remembering the event, one of the most iconic in Oscar history, and for today's debates? Brando – who would make a Neil Young rock song as a pro-Native American champion in 1979 – had staged it, found a face for his (perfectly correct) thesis that Hollywood had been wronging Indians for three-quarters of a century, and settled on Littlefeather remembers whom he had met as a speaker on minority issues.
The case raises interesting questions about today's identity politics, which demand that only black people play Othello and that only non-white translators can translate the poems of black women authors. Is it to be condemned that a Mexican woman spoke for the sufferings of Native Americans (apart from the deception)? Both ethnic groups were (and are) severely discriminated against, but the experiences are different nonetheless.
The process is similar to Wilkomirski syndrome, which describes the falsification of Jewish persecution biographies by non-Jews; blogger Marie Sophie Hingst was an example. Psychologists are to investigate why Littlefeather was ashamed of her Mexicanness and instead began to fight for another disadvantaged minority. In any case, she has been an activist for the Indian cause all her life, even before the Oscars. Commitment counts, empathy counts. Origin can help but is not a requirement.