A Letter to Marlon Brando About Putting an Indian on the Oscar Stage

A Letter to Marlon Brando About Putting an Indian on the Oscar Stage

A Letter to Marlon Brando About Putting an Indian on the Oscar Stage

A character from Tommy Orange’s There There writes to the actor about what it meant to see Sacheen Littlefeather at the Academy Awards.


Dear Marlon Brando,

You’re dead, but I’m writing you. We can’t know that letters don’t reach the dead. I don’t mean I’m sending this anywhere, that I know where to send letters for the dead. I mean writing—which is technically just lettering a blank page—I mean that if I mean to write to someone, might they somehow understand that I’m doing it, and be able to read, listen, understand me? We can’t know either way. Saying it’s impossible is not more plausible than saying it’s possible. It’s because they’re dead and we’ll never know what being dead means aside from the mute meaning we already know that is the opposite of knowing—it is unknowable, it is present absence.

My mom is dead and I write to her, too. But this must be strange, to be getting this from me, someone you don’t know. Then again, if there is some way this might reach you, then maybe strange is not the word, because if this reaches you, strange is relative to what it all means to be dead and receiving a letter from the living. Whatever the word dead means to you after you’re dead must be strange. If we make it past our bodies, if we come out on the other side of them, still with something left, then I’m sure even the word strange wouldn’t make sense for us—the living. All of what it used to mean to be alive.

I should have started out telling you I’m from the original people of this country. A Southern Cheyenne. It’s from my mom, she was Cheyenne. Like your daughter’s name. I always wondered if you named her after our tribe. I never knew my dad, so I wouldn’t have any reason to identify as being experientially or ethnically rooted in a guy my mom said she thought was probably white, a guy named Vance. Vance isn’t even a name. Is it? Vance?

Mr. Brando, you should know that my heart is as pure and young as yours tried to stay all those years you tried but failed to avoid the land mines laid down by your father, your mother, 10 million eyes and minds and negative gossip-column write-ups in the Entertainment sections of a thousand publications. Marlon, my heart is full of land mines too.

You went to Alcatraz and refused your Academy Award. You put an Indian on stage in your place in front of millions to deny a golden statue for acting on a shining screen in a capital-I Important role in a film about the Mafia. We appreciate you. You said, “It’s hard enough for children to grow up in this world. When Indian children…see their race depicted as they are in films, their minds become injured in ways we can never know.”

The first time I heard about you I was an Indian child in front of the TV with my mom watching the Oscars. I knew you then as the man the award was meant for. My mom named you when I asked her what was happening. She said Sacheen Littlefeather was up there on your behalf. I asked her what “behalf” meant and she ignored me.

“Just imagine,” she said. Like there was a reason to imagine it and not just look at the screen. “An Indian up there where all those movie stars been.”

She was right. I couldn’t believe it either, up there and on the TV and looking like an Indian no less. And then Sacheen Littlefeather passed the award back. Or she didn’t take it at all. I looked back at my mom, who didn’t notice I looked back. Her eyes were glued to the screen. I knew she was going through whatever I was, seeing a real Indian person on the biggest stage in the world. I tried to listen to what Sacheen was saying but it was like I couldn’t hear it. I was so excited to see a real Indian person up there it was like the image of her made a buzzing sound in my ears. Sure we’d been in the movies all along, all the way back to Edison. I’d seen Indian people on the screen before, but mostly we were Indians how they wanted us to be Indians.

“She’s saying they don’t want the award, Brando don’t want it, says she works for some organization working toward the affirmative image of Native Americans in films.” I watched and tried to think about who you were, what movies had I seen you in? I couldn’t picture you.

And then they turned on Sacheen. The Oscars. The crowd booed. I’m sure you remember it. Others clapped after, but that boo was deeply damaging. I’m sure it messed with you, too. John Wayne tried to go after her backstage and had to be held back. Because an Indian dressed up like an Indian was disrupting the awards to celebrate pretending as it happened on the big screen by hero cowboys against savage Indians. This was a night to celebrate performance, and you, Marlon fucking Brando, you were asking that people stop acting like we’ve been doing right by Indians, to acknowledge that there’s a problem with Indian representation. That’s why what you did was so powerful, Mr. Brando. People don’t differentiate between what’s on the screen and what’s real. I mean, if you ask them, they’ll tell you they know. In fact, if you ask them, you’ll insult them. But they don’t really know. Not really. You knew that. Even my mom, who didn’t have many illusions about anything, knew what was going on on the surface of that box’s screen, how it was no more a reality than the words that came out of the mouth of the Indian man that lived under the freeway down the street from our apartment, who talked about how white people were aliens from a planet behind the sun. When I was 5 or so I asked my mom if he was a troll. The Indian guy. She told me he was just lost. And I asked her if we should try to see if we could give him directions.

I don’t know how long you stayed on Alcatraz. Maybe you just made an appearance. I went there with my mom when I was younger. To be honest I was more interested in gangsters like Al Capone than the Occupation. What’s funny about it all is that you denied an award for pretending to be a famous gangster after supporting a movement on an island known for once being filled with famous gangsters.

You didn’t do a lot for Indians after Wounded Knee and all that. I actually respect that. You had other causes, a diverse set of systems and people you wanted to help, we Indians aren’t the only ones with problems, obviously. And so even though you didn’t do a great deal for Indians after that moment when Sacheen was up there on stage for us all to see, that was enough for me, a whole bunch of Indians out there like me too I’m sure. Because the one thing we never had in our lives was a proper mirror. Where could we look? Not even necessarily to each other.

I work as a social worker, off and on at an Indian center in Oakland. I help other Indian people find their way to resources and through systems. I made several short films about the Oakland Native community. It’s I guess DIY short documentary work—not that that’s a genre. It’s mostly interview stuff I intercut with footage from the different places in Oakland they might mention—even when they don’t, I know the textures of Oakland well enough to find the right place to show if someone’s saying something in an interview; sometimes it’s almost like I’m cutting to another character, another interviewee, like there’s this fence along East 12th along some old tracks of no use anymore: Along the BART tracks and freeway, the fence stretches out there like a frown; and the houses in the Oakland Hills shine like the sun on a pair of sunglasses worn by a disengaged, aloof politician. There is a gloaming sadness over Jack London Square at sunset I’ve used in a film, and some other haunted feeling about the stillness of the cranes along the port I’ve shot. All of this can be used to help stories be understood visually. There are streets with cracks so deep and long time slips into them at night—widens them. The necklace of lights around Lake Merritt’s rim gleam in the eyes of those who brave the Oakland night. There is fog on the island of Alcatraz that moves like it’s alive, like it’s something’s breath. It is.

Marlon. I don’t know how to tell you how to tell me who I am when I reflect before you on the page. What I mean by you telling me who I am is related to what it means for me to write to you even though you’ve already been gone for so many years. I was thinking maybe you’d start talking back if I tell you enough.


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