Posted on October 24, 2022

Sacheen Littlefeather Was a Native American Icon. Her Sisters Say She Was an Ethnic Fraud

Jacqueline Keeler, San Francisco Chronicle, October 22, 2022

You might not know her name, but you’ve probably seen the video that made her famous. In 1973, actress and activist Sacheen Littlefeather took the stage at the Oscars dressed in a beaded buckskin dress in place of Marlon Brando, after he was awarded Best Actor for his role as Vito Corleone in “The Godfather.” Claiming Apache heritage, she spoke eloquently, to a backdrop of boos, of the mistreatment of Native Americans by the film industry and beyond.


Presenters ridiculed her during the broadcast. She told reporters that John Wayne had to be held back by six security guards to prevent him from rushing the stage and assaulting her. In taped interviews this year with the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences shortly before her death, Littlefeather said that going onstage that night led to her being blacklisted from the entertainment business.

As the decades passed, however, the calm dignity with which she conducted herself that night, easily viewable on Youtube, won over many critics. And interviews she gave in the intervening years, describing a childhood of poverty growing up in a shack, where she and her white mother were victims of domestic abuse and violence by her White Mountain Apache and Yaqui Indian father, made her story a sympathetic one. As such, she enjoyed incredible public support when it was announced months ago that the Academy would finally apologize to her after nearly 50 years.

The death of the “Apache activist and actress,” as she was described in her New York Times obituary earlier this month and in thousands of articles over the years, was mourned widely and uncritically.

In one of her final interviews, Littlefeather told The Chronicle that she took the stage at the Oscars because “I spoke my heart, not for me, myself, as an Indian woman but for we and us, for all Indian people … I had to speak the truth. Whether or not it was accepted, it had to be spoken on behalf of Native people.”

But Littlefeather didn’t tell the truth that night. That’s because, according to her biological sisters, Rosalind Cruz and Trudy Orlandi, Littlefeather isn’t Native at all.

“It’s a lie,” Orlandi told me in an exclusive interview. “My father was who he was. His family came from Mexico. And my dad was born in Oxnard.”

“It is a fraud,” Cruz agreed. “It’s disgusting to the heritage of the tribal people. And it’s just … insulting to my parents.”

Littlefeather’s sisters both said in separate interviews that they have no known Native American/American Indian ancestry. They identified as “Spanish” on their father’s side and insisted their family had no claims to a tribal identity.

“I mean, you’re not gonna be a Mexican American princess,” Orlandi said of her sister’s adoption of a fraudulent identity. “You’re gonna be an American Indian princess. It was more prestigious to be an American Indian than it was to be Hispanic in her mind.”

The sisters reached out to tell me their story because, for some time, I have been compiling a public list of alleged “Pretendians” — non-Native people who I or other Native American people suspect or proved to have manufactured their Native identities for personal gain. Littlefeather was among them.

I put the list together in January 2021, after the New York Times published an opinion article by Claudia Lawrence to mark the nomination of Rep. Deb Haaland, D-N.M., a Laguna Pueblo tribal member, to be secretary of the interior. Lawrence falsely claimed her late husband’s tribal identity and stole a historical moment for Native women by mimicking a Native woman’s perspective as she talked down to the interior secretary in the country’s paper of record. I found this infuriating and began compiling a list that generations of Native people have been building since the 1960s to unmask ethnic frauds.

Littlefeather caught my eye.

Her claim to White Mountain Apache heritage, a federally recognized tribe in Arizona with official enrollment policies and a long history of isolation from Spanish colonialism, was especially curious. Littlefeather was born in Salinas, the hometown of “Grapes of Wrath” author John Steinbeck, under the name Maria Louise Cruz in 1946. Her parents were Manuel Ybarra Cruz and Gertrude Barnitz. My review of her father’s side of the family tree, where she claimed her Native heritage, found no documented ties between his extended family and any extant Native American nations in the United States.

I did, however, find family records in Mexico going back to 1850. Marriage and baptismal records do not place the Cruz or Ybarra families near White Mountain Apache territory in Arizona — and they weren’t near Yaqui communities in Mexico, either. Instead, the Cruz line goes to a village that is now part of Mexico City. Mexican Catholic baptismal records and U.S. military registration cards from World War I and World War II of the Ybarra men (their grandmother’s brothers) place distant family in Pima/O’odham (formerly Papago) tribal territory in Sonora, Mexico. However, Brian Haley, a scholar of California and Sonoran tribes, told me that these are communities where tribal members would have been a distinct minority.

All of the family’s cousins, great-aunts, uncles and grandparents going back to about 1880 (when their direct ancestors crossed the border from Mexico) identified as white, Caucasian and Mexican on key legal documents in the United States. None of their relatives married anyone who identified as Native American or American Indian. All of their spouses also identified as either white, Caucasian or Mexican. White Mountain Apache tribal officials I spoke with told me they found no record of either Littlefeather or her family members, living or dead, being enrolled in the White Mountain Apache.

A review of five decades of media reports about Littlefeather showed that her claims of affiliation with the White Mountain Apache began after she was a student at San Jose State in the late 1960s and local Bay Area news outlets reported on her burgeoning modeling career. On Jan. 14, 1971, the Oakland Tribune published a photo of her and identified her as Sacheen Littlefeather. A few days later, KRON news filmed a short modeling video of her wearing Native-inspired outfits. And on March 28, 1971, the San Francisco Examiner featured a photo of her with Cheri Nordwall, an Ojibwe/Shoshone activist, where Littlefeather is described as “White Mountain Apache.” In the decades following, she also claimed to be of Yaqui descent. {snip}

The sisters told me that their family never claimed this heritage growing up. After hearing her sister’s stories, Cruz checked with White Mountain Apache authorities to see if she or anyone in her family were members of the tribe. She says no enrollment records were found. {snip}