Amid allegations that Sacheen Littlefeather faked a Native American identity for more than 50 years, others have come forward to offer examples of how the late Bay Area activist obscured, embellished or fabricated details about her life, including her purported work with dance pioneer Michael Smuin on one of his most acclaimed ballets.
Paula Tracy, the ex-wife and former dance partner of Smuin, who died in 2007, said in an email shared with this news organization that Littlefeather exaggerated her participation on his 1984 work, “Song for Dead Warriors.” Smuin’s ballet was inspired by the life and death of activist Richard Oakes, one of the Native American students who led the occupation of Alcatraz in 1969.
“I did not realize that Sacheen Littlefeather was claiming to have been a consultant for the ballet,” said Tracy, who was married to Smuin at the time. “She definitely was trying to insert herself into the production.”
Littlefeather, born Marie Louise Cruz in Salinas, made Academy Awards history when she appeared on behalf of Marlon Brando to reject his best actor Oscar at the 1973 ceremony, as a protest the negative stereotyping of American Indians in entertainment and to bring attention to the Wounded Knee Occupation protest in South Dakota. Her poised demeanor and important message brought some professional opportunities, including the chance “to work” with Smuin, then the co-artistic director of the San Francisco Ballet.
In a three-hour oral history for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences museum, Littlefeather said she and a friend, Native American dancer Jasper Redrobe, were brought in as “dance consultants,” for the ballet.
Littlefeather, who died Oct. 2 in Novato at age 75, said she worked on the ballet for five years. “It was a beautiful, beautiful project to work on for … many years,” she said. Littlefeather is correct when she says that the ballet won Smuin an Emmy Award after it aired on PBS’ “Great Performances” series. It also traveled to Washington, D.C., where it was performed at the Kennedy Center in 1985.
Littlefeather said in her interview that she attended a performance of the ballet — possibly at the Kennedy Center — with actor Joanne Woodward. “She viewed it and cried when she saw it,” Littlefeather said. “She said to me and Michael Smuin: ‘This is not a ballet. This is real life.’”
The San Francisco Ballet confirmed that Sacheen was credited as “an advisor” for the 1984 telecast, and the Dance Theatre of Harlem lists her as “Native American adviser” for its production. But Tracy challenges the idea that Littlefeather regularly worked on the production, including for as long as five years.
“The Native American consultant for the ballet was a dancer who was recommended by, and related to, Anna Halprin,” Tracy said, referring to Redrobe and Bay Area avante-garde dancer and choreographer Anna Halprin. “(Redrobe) was a tremendous help and taught the dancers (and Michael) traditional Native American dance steps which were included in the choreography.”
Otherwise, Tracy remembered Littlefeather visiting their home once and appearing at the opening night party with several “celebrity” Native Americans.
The allegations that Littlefeather falsely claimed to be White Mountain Apache and Yaqui have ignited debate in Native American circles about “Pretendians,” people who falsely claim to be Native American for fame, money or other opportunities. The allegations were made public in October by Littlefeather’s sisters, Trudy Orlandi and Rosalind Cruz, after the Academy celebrated her as an icon of diversity in its glittery new museum. The Academy reaped positive P.R. when it threw a gala celebration for her before her death and apologized for the boos she faced during her speech and for being “professionally boycotted” in the years after.
Scholars and activists say that concerns about Littlefeather’s “ethnic fraud” are bolstered by stories she told about herself over the years that either can’t be verified or that are refuted by other people and historical records. Helene Hagan, a historian, anthropologist and former long-time friend of Littlefeather, has called on the Academy to correct the story it tells about her in its museum, saying she acted out “many roles” in her “search for recognition and fame.”
Over the years, Littlefeather said in different interviews that she grew up impoverished – even in a shack with no toilet – and as the daughter of an abusive, alcoholic Native American father and a White mother, both of whom were too mentally ill to care for her. Orlandi and Cruz say those claims are false and that their father was Mexican American and that no one in their family ever talked about having Native American ancestry.
Research by Native American journalist Jacqueline Keeler, which included records going back to 1850, uncovered no ties between the Cruz family of Mexico and the White Mountain Apache and Yaqui tribes. Dina Gilio-Whitaker, a writer and lecturer of American Indian Studies at CSU San Marcos who once was commissioned to ghost-write Littlefeather’s memoir, said Keeler’s research is solid. She said Littlefeather never talked to her about her family connections to the White Mountain Apache or Yaqui tribes.
Littlefeather pushed the narrative over the years that she was from an oppressed people, while playing to the stereotype of the “Indian princess,” Gilio-Whitaker said. Littlefeather told The Guardian in 2021 that her parents, Manuel and Geroldine Cruz, met in Arizona but that they couldn’t marry in that state because because mixed-race couples were “illegal” so they moved to Salinas, California. Keeler has published Manuel and Geroldine’s 1946 marriage license from Pinal County Arizona online.
Littlefeather’s sisters say their parents raised them in a loving, middle-class home. Orlandi said she and her older sister Marie shared bunkbeds and that their father, who was hearing-impaired, never abused any of his daughters. The sisters attended a private Catholic school, enjoyed 4-H projects, dance lessons and access to a family horse. Their White grandparents lived on the same property and helped look after them.
In some interviews, Littlefeather said she started to reconnect with her Native heritage during the Alcatraz occupation. On her official website, Littlefeather said she was one of the “original” occupiers, but she backtracked in other interviews to say she only visited on weekends. LaNada War Jack, another of the student leaders of the occupation, told this news organization that Littlefeather was “never on the island,” though other scholars say people came and went so it would be hard to know for sure.
War Jack said people in the Bay Area Native American community “applauded” when Littlefeather spoke at the Oscar ceremony but “we knew she wasn’t Native.” War Jack said she also “became a joke” when Playboy published nude photos of her after her Oscars speech. War Jack said no self-respecting Native woman would pose nude in a national magazine.
Following the Oscars, Littlefeather said the FBI told the studios to blacklist her from movie roles. The FBI did not respond to a request for comment about Littlefeather’s claims, but her name doesn’t appear in its online library of files on counter-culture activists released under the Freedom of Information Act.
Hagan said Littlefeather in fact picked up small roles in comedies and low-budget films after the Oscars, including in the cult movie “The Trial of Billy Jack,” her IMDB page shows. If her Hollywood career didn’t pan out, it could be due to her limited acting range, said film historian Angela Aleiss, co-author of “Hollywood’s Native Americans.”
Hagan described other instances when Littlefeather embellished biographical details. Hagan questions Littlefeather’s assertion that she worked “with” Mother Teresa in caring for people dying of AIDS in the 1980s. Hagan recalls Littlefeather volunteering with Mother Teresa’s hospice organization in San Francisco but said she only could have managed a photo op when the Calcutta-based nun came to visit. More seriously, Hagan debunked Littlefeather’s claim that she was “valedictorian” when she received a bachelor’s degree in holistic health and nutrition from Antioch University West in San Francisco. That degree allowed her to teach courses in Indigenous medicine around the country, but Hagan shared a letter from the university’s registrar, which said she received no such degree.
Some of Littlefeather’s oft-mentioned credentials appeared to be verified by published accounts. She was listed as a board member of the American Indian AIDS Institute in a 1988 newsletter, and she encouraged Tamalpais High School in the late 1980s to phase out its Indian mascot, according to a 2013 article in the school newspaper.
Another curiosity in the Littlefeather saga came in 2022 from Liv Ullman, the Swedish actor who first encountered Littlefeather at the 1973 Oscars when she and Roger Moore were supposed to present Brando his best actor award.
During a 2022 career retrospective at the British Film Institute, Ullman talked about running into Littlefeather 45 years later in San Rafael, at a 2018 showing of the documentary, “Liv & Ingmar – A Love Story” As the two women chatted at a reception, Ullman said Littlefeather told her, “I’m not Indian at all.” Ullman shrugged and said, “She might have tried to be funny. I don’t always understand Hollywood jokes.” Ullman’s remarks, viewable on YouTube, come at the 1:41-minute mark:
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