Sacheen Littlefeather and the Question of Native Identity
Two days after the death of Sacheen Littlefeather, her estranged sister was angrily scrolling Twitter.
She was furious, she said in an interview this week, at the outpouring of praise for Littlefeather, the actress and activist who became famous when Marlon Brando sent her to the 1973 Oscars to refuse his best actor award and denounce Hollywood’s treatment of Native Americans.
“I was reading what all these people were saying: ‘Oh, rest in peace and she was a saint, and she sacrificed herself,’” the sister, Rozalind Cruz, said. The sisters had been estranged for about 13 years for a variety of reasons, Cruz said, but at that point she still believed her family had Indian ancestry.
Then she saw tweets by the writer Jacqueline Keeler, a citizen of Navajo Nation who has stirred controversy with her efforts to expose what she calls “pretendians.” Keeler was disputing Littlefeather’s claims that her father was White Mountain Apache and Yaqui.
Cruz replied to Keeler on Twitter on Oct. 4 that her grandmother was of “Yaqui and Spanish” descent. Cruz herself had tried to enroll in the White Mountain Apache Tribe. But over the next few weeks, Cruz said, Keeler showed her genealogical research that traced her father’s family back to Mexico in 1850 and said there was no evidence of Native ancestry.
Cruz and the middle sister of the family, Trudy Orlandi, were both persuaded by the research. Last Saturday, less than a month after their sister’s death at age 75, The San Francisco Chronicle published an opinion column by Keeler under the headline, “Sacheen Littlefeather was a Native American icon. Her sisters say she was an ethnic fraud.”
The column unleashed an intense response in Native American circles on social media.
Some condemned Littlefeather, saying she had fabricated an identity to promote her Hollywood career. But others strongly objected to Keeler’s investigation, saying it ignored the complicated ways Native identity can be formed, particularly for those who do not meet the formal criteria for tribal membership. Enrollment typically requires proof of tribal ties, often described in terms of one’s percentage of “Indian blood,” or “blood quantum.”
“What many people don’t understand about Native existence is that some Natives aren’t enrolled,” Laura Clark, a journalist who is Muscogee and Cherokee, wrote in Variety in response to Keeler’s column.
“Some Natives are reconnecting with their tribes,” Clark wrote. “Some Natives don’t have enough ‘Indian blood’ to register because of blood quantum minimums. And some Natives have had their tribes nearly erased to the point that organized citizenship records simply don’t exist.”
The Shoshone poet nila northsun, a friend of Littlefeather’s from their college days in the 1970s, said this week that she was not surprised that Keeler had failed to find tribal affiliations in family records.
Native Americans, she said, might have hidden their backgrounds to avoid discrimination or were misidentified.
“It’s what you feel in your heart, and what your belief system is,” said northsun, who lowercases her name. “Just because she’s not enrolled or can’t be identified in records doesn’t mean she’s not Indigenous.”
In an interview on Wednesday, Keeler rejected such assertions, saying she and volunteer researchers had reviewed records for hundreds of Littlefeather’s relatives. None identified as Native American, nor did they live with or marry members of any Apache tribe or anyone identifying as Yaqui, according to a summary of the research she published on Substack.
“Could their family have some distant drop of Indigenous blood from hundreds of years ago?” she wrote in the column. “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.”
It was not known if Littlefeather had ever tried to enroll in a tribe. The Pascua Yaqui Tribe in Arizona said in a statement that Littlefeather was not an enrolled member of the tribe, and neither were her parents.
“However,” the tribe said, “that does not mean that we could independently confirm that she is not of Yaqui ancestry generally, from Mexico or the Southwestern United States.”
The White Mountain Apache Tribe in Arizona did not immediately release a statement.
Littlefeather was born Marie Cruz in 1946 and said in interviews over the years that her father, Manuel Ybarra Cruz, was White Mountain Apache and Yaqui and had abused her and her mother, Geroldine Cruz, who was of French, German and Dutch lineage.
Rozalind Cruz, 65, of Big Arm, Mont., and Orlandi, 72, of San Anselmo, Calif., have strongly disputed their sister’s accounts of their father’s alcoholism and abuse. He died in 1966 at age 44, when Littlefeather was 19.
By age 26, Littlefeather was fully identifying as Native American when she protested at the Oscars, wearing a buckskin dress, moccasins and hair ties. She spent the next five decades as an activist in the Native American community and was married to Charles Johnston, a member of the Otoe-Missouria Tribe of Oklahoma, who died last year.
She became a revered figure for some. In August, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announced that it had apologized to Littlefeather, calling her treatment at the Oscars, where she was booed, “unwarranted and unjustified.”
In a statement on Thursday, the Academy Museum, which hosted an event honoring Littlefeather in September, said that it was aware of claims going back decades about her background but that “the Academy recognizes self-identification.”
Cruz said that her father, who was deaf and communicated with sign language or a chalkboard, had never told her about Native American relatives.
She said she had grown up knowing she had Spanish and Mexican heritage but also believed for most of her life that she was “probably about a quarter” Native American because of her older sister’s professed identity.
Cruz said she had even applied last November to become a member of the White Mountain Apache Tribe but was denied because the tribe could not find records to support her claim. But that all changed after her sister’s death. She recalled telling Keeler on the phone: “You’re right. She’s a fraud. She’s a phony.”
Some scholars agree, saying Keeler’s research was persuasive.
“Keeler proves Littlefeather was a troubled woman who made the stories of others her own,” said Liza Black, an associate professor of history and Native American and Indigenous studies at Indiana University, and a citizen of Cherokee Nation.
She said that many Native people understand the complexity of identity because of multiple tribal affiliations, blood quantum restrictions and adoptions, but that “Littlefeather does not fall into any of these true, real and complex Native identities.”
Keeler’s research to prove that people are faking Indian identities has prompted blowback from critics who said that her work casts a cloud of suspicion over all Indigenous people.
It suggests that “Native people need to create a system where they have to prove who they say they are,” said Andrew Jolivétte, the director of Native American and Indigenous studies at the University of California San Diego, who describes himself as Creole of Opelousa, Atakapa Ishak, French, African, Irish, Italian and Spanish descent.
“Why do American Indians have to do that and not other people?” he added.
For Keeler, to be Native American or American Indian is to be part of a clearly defined political group that existed before European colonial contact.
“We’re not just an identity,” she said. “We are actually a political class. We are citizens of nations. We are sovereign.” Her goal, she said, is to stop non-Indians from profiting off false claims of being Native American.
“We want real change and we want real justice, and that’s not going to happen when it all comes down to actors playing us,” she said.
For her part, Cruz said she had no regrets.
“All I did was, I put a pebble out there,” she said. “And I let the water rip.”