Friday, March 05, 2010
QUITE POSSIBLY OSCAR'S FINEST MOMENT
In the 1830's during the forced relocation march known as "The Trail Of Tears", many, many Native Americans died of starvation, exposure, exhaustion, disease and brutality.
In 1890, many Apaches (men, women and children) were massacred at Wounded Knee Creek, South Dakota, by American troops.
Native Americans were swindled, robbed, double crossed, brutalized, forced to assimilate, relocated, dispossessed of their native lands, and murdered during the "American Indian Wars." The Trail Of Tears and Wounded Knee are only two of many atrocities, distinguished by having names. The ultimate result of the campaigns against Native Americans was of course, the appropriation (ie theft) of their native land, and the suppression of any resistance or threat to the New Americans.
The Native Americans, who had a complex civilization in place as they were being crowded out by New Americans, fought back, and committed their own atrocities. Movies and television of the mid 1900's, when it told stories of the settling of the West, generally told the story only from the one point of view, that of the settlers, the New Americans, and portrayed the Indians as savages and murderers who committed unspeakable atrocities.
In February 1973, there was a memorial to the Indians who died at Wounded Knee, and a protest against the treatment of Native Americans, by the American Indian Movement at Wounded Knee.
In support of the general aims of the memorial protest at Wounded Knee, and in protest against the treatment of Indians in the movies, Marlon Brando, who had become interested in Indian Rights, declined his Best Actor award for The Godfather, and asked an American Indian activist, Sacheen Littlefeather, who had Apache heritage, to decline the award for him at the ceremony.
The result of this shocking event at the Oscar ceremony was, in fact, that much more attention was paid to the situation of Native Americans, the terrible treatment they had gotten from the US Government, and the way they had been portrayed in movies.
Nevertheless, there has been a thread of derision directed at the event, and at the actress and activist, Sacheen Littlefeather, who declined the award for Brando.
Most recently, a few days ago, David Shuster -- who is usually quite reasonable -- in a segment about Oscar controversies, referred to Sacheen Littlefeather contemptuously as an actress who played an Indian to decline Brando's award.
I interviewed Sacheen Littlefeather about 30+ years ago, a few years after the Oscar event, when she acted in The Trial of Billy Jack. She was a hard working, intelligent Native American, and an articulate spokeswoman for their issues, who was also a talented actress. She was beautiful in appearance, and lovely in personality.
The situation that Native Americans were in then, as she described them, and as described also by Gus Greymountain, another Native American I interviewed (from the same film), was appalling. The financial circumstances and the general health of Native American peoples at the time needed action.
Attention to the plight and situation of American Indians was sorely needed at the time Brando declined the Oscar and Sacheen rose to the podium at the Oscar Ceremony.
It was a dramatic moment and a courageous thing to do. Viewing a clip (below) of the event shows how difficult it was, and that she behaved with grace and eloquence.
The incident should not be belittled. It should be applauded.
It was quite possibly Oscar's finest moment, because it was in a significant way a turning point for advancing the rights of all Americans. It used the Oscar platform to speak out to make the world aware of an important humanitarian and cultural issue, related to movies yet bigger than just the movies -- just as the Oscar ceremony itself is somehow bigger than just a show about movie prizes, it is a show about the world's shared culture.
Here is a link to the clip of that moment: