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A Night at the Holland Museum

It’s funny how one email can motivate great reflection. So it was for me August 16, 2022. Three months ago the Academy of Motion Pictures made public their formal apology letter to Sacheen Littlefeather. She is the Indian woman who in March of 1973 refused the Oscar Marlon Brando was awarded for his portrayal of Don Corleone in The Godfather.

My husband Phil got an email that morning of August 16 from his brother Dick. Telling him to have me look up the news of this press release. I’ll never forget my shock. As Littlefeather must have also been shocked when she got this formal letter fro The Academy in June

Why would this motivate me to reflect, you ask? Not just little bit. But a great deal. Even as I write these thoughts to accompany this film of the talk I gave at the Holland Museum November 4, 2022, two and a half months later.

Because on March 14, 1972, I along with my first husband Jim Thomas (full blood Tlingit Indian from Yakutat, Alaska), Bob Jim (Tribal Chairman of the Yakima Nation of Washington State) and Doug Smith (friend from Hope College of my husband).

Attended The Godfather Premiere for Marlon Brando. For the same reason Littlefeather refused his Oscar a year later.

This is why I found myself standing in front of over 50 people to relate my experience of attending The Evening with Littlefeather at the Academy Museum theater September 17th.

You can look up on the internet all about these many things I’ve mentioned. Except for one.

As famous as The Godfather was then and still is, there is nothing about us being there for Marlon. Nor about Marlon not attending the very film that revived his career.

Isn’t that strange! I guess the powers that be didn’t want The Westerns examined by American Indian eyes!

Hi from Michigan I just got off the phone with one of your very helpful people. I didn’t catch his name. I explained to him who I am and why I’m contacting you. He encouraged me to write this. This morning (August 16) I learned that The Academy had formerly apologized to Sacheen Littlefeather for the public abuse she’s suffered for almost 50 years now. Like her, I thought I’d never hear this! Hear me why I write this with tears in my eyes! My husband Jim Thomas (full blood Tlingit Indian from Alaska) became friends with Marlon Brando in 1971. Marlon lent his voice to the campaign to get Mt. Adams returned to the Yakima Indian Nation of Washington State. It was signed back by President Nixon in 1972. You can look up the signing with Bob Jim, the Yakima Chairman at the time. Marlon and Jim spent a lot of time together. So I heard a lot about the filming of The Godfather from my husband. So Marlon realized The Godfather was going to generate a lot of public notice, so he asked my husband and I along with Bob Jim and my husband’s best friend Doug Smith to attend the premiere in his place. To use this opportunity to remind people that the Westerns didn’t represent the truth in a fair way. As a child here in Holland, Michigan I watched those movies too. So I knew first hand why Marlon wanted us there. As a young child, I somehow knew how wrong it was of us as a country to do what we did to get to get Land. But I didn’t realize it was what we didn’t do that was far more serious. Jim went to high school and college here in Holland. (1956-1963) We met at the local airport where we both were taking flying lessons. I thought he was a Japanese exchange student. He forgave my error and we married the next year. We moved back to Yakutat, his home village of 300. I was warmly accepted in spite of being white. Adopted into the Eagle Clan. Jim often said I was more Indian than he was. 7 years living in Holland changed him too. We were very involved in the Alaska Native Land Claims. So in 1970 we moved to DC where Jim took over as PR director for the National Congress of American Indians. The next year we started our own pr firm. Jim Thomas associates. The Yakima Nation being our main client to work to get Mt. Adams returned. This is when Jim and Marlon met. Injustice issues were something that Marlon felt deeply about. The side of him that so few people knew about. So Marlon asked my husband and I along with Bob Jim, the Yakima Chairman at the time and Doug Smith, my husband’s best friend to attend the premiere in his place. For the same reason Sacheen Littlefeather refused the Oscar for Marlon a year later. Marlon knew the Godfather would generate lots of publicity. He wanted to use this wisely. So it is no wonder I’m so moved by what The Academy has done. So that is why we were there March 15, 1972. Why a knew ahead of time that Sacheen Littlefeather would refuse the Oscar for Marlon and why. In 1980 Jim and I divorced. I came back to Holland where I grew up with our three children. This is the first place my children ever experienced racism. It hasn’t been easy for any of us. In 1987 that childhood knowing came back. From then on I’ve been doing all I can to help people realize not only what we did but more importantly what we didn’t do. 500 years ago we saw Indigenous culture and wisdom as primitive and useless. We are only now beginning to realize what we lost. We needed their wisdom gained from being Earth Centered to balance our European Way. Many well known people have been saying this now for the past few years. I’m so glad they are. For me, it’s been 35 years now of realizing this. That it is all about The Land. What the CNN segment last Sunday of W. Kamau Bell was all about. The Land Back Movement. The WHY of that movement. Taking better care of The Land! I could say so much more. But in a month Sacheen Littlefeather will be there to converse with you. An apology is great. But that is only a beginning. Hopefully you will continue on. I will close with this. Mark Seals wrote the book on the making of the Godfather last year. He somehow found out that there were Indians at the Premiere. On Google you’ll never find out about us. So he found Jim’s phone number and Jim gave Mark a picture of Marlon and Jim together and details. I found out about this and contacted Mark to share what it had been like for me. But what he heard the most from me was about wishing Paramount and Robert Evans had taken Marlon serious. Ali McGraw was married to Mr. Evans at the time. She was there in April of 1970 at the First Earth Day. They weren’t able to see the obvious. Indigenous Peoples have been saying this for 500 years. If you Abuse the Earth now, you will reap the whirlwind in the future. For all of us. I realize that stories touch people with far more powerful then facts. Sacheen’s story has enormous power. To connect people to what our American System has done to the Planet. And I’m also aware my own story has enormous power too. Why I’m writing it. Please listen to our stories and learn from them. We have paid dearly for the wisdom we’ve become intimate with. So I would remiss if I didn’t contact you now. Seems that maybe a formal apology is due Marlon himself even though he’s been dead a long time now. For making fun of him all these years for refusing the Oscar. His thinking is now seen as wise. And you can’t apologize to Bob Jim either because he died in 1973. But my ex-husband is still alive and so am I. We’ve carried this for 50 years now. I live with the What If. If we’d only tied Earth Day and a fresh look at the Westerns together. Think what power to wake Americans up. 50 years ago. As I said to Mark. I’m haunted by that. That this didn’t happen. If I sound hash, forgive me! But when I see what has happened to Our Shared Earth, it is amazing, my words are so kind. Sacheen speaks of Indian patience and humor. I’m not as good as she is. I’m impatient for children, my grandchildren, my greats. I form seashells of polymer clay now. In 1987 when I woke to what we’d done to Native Peoples and The Earth, I was shamed into quitting being a collector of live marine snails. I now form them of clay collecting them in a guiltless way. This is the power of Knowing what we did and didn’t do. Shame, regret, forgiveness and then positive solutions. When I got up this morning, I felt very discouraged because I’m old and tired. It’s a lonely and painful thing to write my story. Which is really our family story. So few realize yet what was lost 500 years ago. Over and over again. So this is very strange writing this. I’ve pondered writing this hundreds of times. Just didn’t know how the door would open. This is the power of apology. Annie Olson 616-422-3729 Sent from my iPad

Hello, Annie! Congratulations! You have been selected to receive a ticket to the conversation with Sacheen Littlefeather this Saturday at 5 P.M.! Later this evening, you will be receiving your ticket via email. Thank you for your correspondence and enjoy the event! Best, Blake B.

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