“Marlon Brando is widely considered the greatest movie actor of all time,” says International Movie Data Base (IMDb), the organization rating him No. 1, noting that he “popularized the Method style of performing, which stripped away grandiose theatricality in favor of a deeper psychological approach to inhabiting a character.
“Generations of young actors were electrified by Brando’s work. Marlon Brando is the epitome of actors today, and all actors since the 1950s have been mimicking him.”
Brando deserves the accolades, but there was more to him than being a great actor. He was also a maverick who boldly supported various causes, occasionally indulged in gay activities, battled bureaucrats, bought islands in Tahiti, gave land to the Native Americans, picked up two Academy Awards along the way, rejected a third Oscar, and came to the Pacific Northwest to fight for Indian rights.
When Marlon Brando came to Puyallup, Wash., in March 1964, he knew he’d be arrested — and that didn’t bother him a bit.
Local Native Americans were restless, and he believed they had every right to be.
One hundred and 10 years earlier, Washington Territorial Governor Isaac I. Stevens who was also Superintendent of Indian Affairs had forced the Medicine Creek Treaty of 1854 on the Nisqually, Puyallup and Squaxin tribes, taking more than 2,240,000 acres of traditional tribal lands, with no access to the rivers where the Indians fished for their food.
The tribes were also to be paid $32,000 by the U.S. government over 20 years.
Stevens instructed his interpreter to say, “Tell the chiefs if they don’t sign this treaty they will walk in blood knee deep.”
Within his first year, Stevens had acquired more than 64 million acres of land, leaving the Native Americans less than 6 million acres, split into reservations.
President Franklin Pierce later gave back 4,700 acres of river frontage land.
Government overlords claimed the treaties were necessary because Native Americans weren’t using the land properly — by white man standards — and needed to learn modern farming and be assimilated into the general population.
Stevens promised the tribes the right to take fish “at all usual and accustomed stations … in common with the citizens of the Territory.”
That clause was being ignored by the Washington Fish and Game authorities, angering local Indians, and spurring Brando to champion their cause.
During World War I, Pierce County condemned the east bank portion and turned it over to the Army for Fort Lewis.
On March 2, 1964, 500 local Indians watched and cheered as Brando and Puyallup Indian activist and tribal leader Robert Satiacum, and Episcopal clergyman John Yaryan lowered a gillnet into the Puyallup River, catching two salmon — defying state fish and game laws.
It was part of a fish-in protest organized by the Survival of the American Indian Society (SAIA), founded in 1981 to deliberately protest through civil disobedience what they considered unjust law enforcement.
They’d use whatever tactics they could to draw public attention to their plight.
Enter Marlon Brando and the illegal fish-in.
Game enforcement agent Walter Neubrech wasn’t amused. “Are you openly defying the laws of the state of Washington?” he asked.
“I’m here to help my Indian friends,” Brando replied. Neubrech promptly arrested Brando and Yaryan. Within two hours they were released. “This was done for show only, and we are not going to make a mockery out of the law or our own offices despite their desire to be jailed” the prosecutor said.
Indian activist Satiacum was not arrested.
Pulling out all the stops, Brando decided the 1973 Academy Awards extravaganza would be the perfect place to draw worldwide attention to the Indian rights drama.
His outstanding performance in “The Godfather” made him a shoo-in for the Best Actor Award.
Brando refused to attend the awards ceremony and instead sent little known 26-year-old Native American actress Sacheen Littlefeather — an Apache Indian — to reject the award and read his statement outlining his reason for doing so.
She joined the audience just moments before the Best Actor announcement. She was prepared to read Brando’s 15-page speech, but producer Howard W. Koch told her that she had only 60 seconds to give her remarks or be removed from the stage.
She said, “Hello. My name is Sacheen Littlefeather. I’m Apache and I am president of the National Native American Affirmative Image Committee. I’m representing Marlon Brando this evening, and he has asked me to tell you in a very long speech which I cannot share with you presently, because of time, but I will be glad to share with the press afterwards, that he very regretfully cannot accept this very generous award.
“And the reasons for this being are the treatment of American Indians today by the film industry — excuse me — and on television in movie re-runs, and also with recent happenings at Wounded Knee.
“I beg at this time that I have not intruded upon this evening, and that we will in the future, our hearts and our understandings will meet with love and generosity. Thank you on behalf of Marlon Brando.”
The audience reacted with mixed applause and boos.
When Roger Moore offered her the Oscar, she held up her hand refusing the statuette.
When presenting the Best Picture Award, Clint Eastwood said he was presenting it “on behalf of all the cowboys shot in John Ford’s westerns over the years,” and co-host Michael Caine took a shot at Brando for “Letting some poor little Indian girl take the boos instead of (standing) up and (doing) it himself.”
“John Wayne was backstage, and he became very upset at my speech, and it took four to six men to restrain him from coming to drag me off stage,” Littlefeather said.
“Afterward, people questioned my authenticity — they said I wasn’t even Indian.”
She read Brando’s full speech in a press conference after the show and it was published in the New York Times.
That was not the end of the matter however for Littlefeather. She was immediately blacklisted in Hollywood, received death threats and pilloried with lies in the news media.
“I found out from friends in the industry that they had been visited by FBI agents right after the Academy Awards who had threatened to put them out of business if they hired me,” she said.
Sacheen Littlefeather now lives in San Francisco.
Marlon Brando continued to be a political activist for the rest of his life. He loved French Polynesia, buying a beautiful atoll there called Tetiaroa and building a little tropical paradise for himself — often sharing it with Hollywood friends — including close pal Robert De Niro.
Fish-ins and Indian activism slowed down as the years passed, but still has not entirely ended.
His efforts on the Puyallup River were a small part that along with many more fish-ins that followed, including violent confrontations, eventually won the day in the courts.
The 1974 Boldt decision in U.S. v. Washington vindicated the tireless efforts of Survival of the American Indian Association and other Indian activist groups by acknowledging and providing federal support for Indians by giving them an equal share of the fisheries, and the right to regulate their own fisheries.
The U.S. Supreme Court upheld the Boldt ruling five years later and it remains U.S. law today.
Brando’s latter years were filled with turmoil — two divorces, son Christian jailed for five years for manslaughter, daughter Cheyenne hangs herself, health problems with diabetes and weight soaring over 300 pounds. Even his beloved paradise Tetiaroa failed to bring him peace. It was destroyed by a typhoon and his daughter committed suicide there.
But let’s remember Marlon Brando as Stanley Kowalski yelling “Stella!” in “Streetcar Named Desire,” playful Sakini in “Teahouse of the August Moon,” the grim revolutionary in “Viva Zapata!,” the taciturn Nazi officer on “Young Lions,” the psychotic Colonel Kurtz in “Apocalypse Now,” historic Fletcher Christian in “Mutiny on the Bounty” (filmed on location at Tetiaora atoll that he would later buy), or the sinister Don Vito Corleone in “The Godfather.”
But perhaps the most important part of Marlon Brando was his concern for protecting the environment and his heart for the American Indians.
Through it all, he remained a great actor.
Marlon Brando died at UCLA Medical Center of pneumonia in 2004 at age 80.
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Contact Syd Albright at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Governor Stevens said it…
“You will be allowed to go to the usual fishing places and fish in common with the whites…The Indian will be allowed to take fish…at the usual fishing places, and this promise will be kept by the Americans as long as the sun shines, as long as the mountains stand, and as long as the rivers run.”
— Isaac I. Stevens, governor, Washington Territory (1855)
“When Brando showed up to set for Apocalypse Now, he weighed close to 300 pounds and hadn’t even read Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, the short novella the movie is based on, so he didn’t have any idea who his character was. This set the tone for the film, as director Francis Ford Coppola and Brando were at each other’s throats throughout the entire process. However, Brando’s weight gain meant that Coppola had to shoot his character, Colonel Kurtz, in the shadows to hide the actor’s bulk, which ended up adding to the magic of the psychotic villain.”
Brando the needler…
Marlon Brando and Frank Sinatra didn’t get along, but had to work together in the movie “Guys and Dolls.” Brando decided to get under his skin and intentionally flubbed a scene involving cheesecake. Nine times Brando messed up the scene, forcing Sinatra to eat nine pieces of cheesecake. Finally, Sinatra blew his top yelling at the director, “These (bleeping) New York actors! How much cheesecake do you think I can eat?”
“My mind is always soothed when I imagine myself sitting on my South Sea island at night. If I have my way, Tetiaroa will remain forever a place that reminds Tahitians of what they are and what they were centuries ago.”
— Marlon Brando
South Pacific lifestyle…
Brando first saw Tetiaroa atoll, 30 miles north of Tahiti’s main island, while filming “Mutiny on the Bounty” there in 1960. He fell in love with the warm turquoise water, pristine beaches, lush vegetation, colorful tropical fish and peacefulness far from the madding crowd. Rejecting the polish of Hollywood society, he would wear a pareo wrapped around his waist, go barefooted and his hair in a ponytail.
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