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Hollywood Activist Faked Her Native American Heritage, Sisters Say

AP Photo, File

Several high-profile activists have been caught in recent years pretending to have Native American ancestry. The list includes Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), who claimed to be Cherokee until a DNA test showed otherwise. A Canadian academic, Carrie Bourassa, claimed to be Metis, Anishinaabe and Tlingit, but an investigation done by her colleagues found “no evidence that she had any indigenous ancestry.” And this week, the biological sisters of an actress and activist who built their career on being Native American have come forward and said she was a fraud.

Actress Sacheen Littlefeather passed away this month at age 75. The New York Times lauded her as an “Apache activist and actress” in its obituary of her. 

At the 1973 Academy Awards, Littlefeather famously refused to accept the Best Actor award on behalf of Marlon Brando, over the mistreatment of Native Americans in the U.S. film industry. 

My name is Sacheen Littlefeather, I’m Apache and I’m 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…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.

This week, the San Francisco Chronicle published an op-ed by Jacqueline Keller, who spoke with Littlefeather’s sisters after her passing. According to her biological sisters, Littlefeather was not Native American, and she also lied about her background as a domestic abuse survivor.

“It’s a lie,” sister Trudy Orlandi said. “My father was who he was. His family came from Mexico. And my dad was born in Oxnard,” a city in California.

“It’s a fraud,” Rosalind Cruz, Littlefeather’s other sister, added. “It’s disgusting to the heritage of the tribal people. And it’s just…insulting to my parents.”

Reportedly, the sisters came forward because the Chronicle had been drafting a public list of high-profile individuals pretending to be Native American. The list began in 2021 after Claudia Lawrence, a New York Times columnist, falsely claimed her late husband’s tribal identity in a piece commemorating Deb Haaland’s appointment to secretary of the U.S. Department of the Interior. Keller wrote that Littlefeather was on the publication’s list:

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. 

Reportedly, Littlefeather claimed to be White Mountain Apache, a federally recognized tribe that lived in the area now known as Arizona and New Mexico. Littlefeather claimed her father’s side of the family was Native American. 

Upon further review, Keller could not find any documented ties between Littlefeather’s extended family and Native American nations in the United States. She was born Marie Louise Cruz in Salinas, California, and found records going back to Mexico as far back as 1850. Her parents were Manuel Ybarra Cruz and Geroldine Barnitz.

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…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.

At one point, Littlefeather also claimed to be of Yaqui descent. She told another San Francisco-area publication that she “lived in a shack” growing up and didn’t have a toilet.

“That infuriates me,” Orlandi said when told of the quote. “Our house had a toilet … And it’s not a shack, OK, I have pictures of it. Of course, we had a toilet.” 

In addition, the sisters claimed that Littlefeather made-up the life story of their father, who she described as a “violent Apache alcoholic who terrorized them and their white mother.”

“My father was deaf and he had lost his hearing at 9 years old through meningitis,” Cruz said. “He was born into poverty. His father, George Cruz, was an alcoholic who was violent and used to beat him. And he was passed to foster homes and family. But my sister Sacheen took what happened to him.”

Orlandi agreed, saying that “my father’s father, George, he was the alcoholic. My dad never drank. My dad never smoked. And you know, she also blasted him and said my father was mentally ill. My father was not mentally ill.”

Littlefeather reportedly said that her Native American name was given to her by a member of the Navajo Nation and means “little bear” in Navajo. Apparently, it doesn’t. 

LaNada Warjack, the first Native American student admitted to UC Berkeley, told the Chronicle that Littlefeather posed for Playboy magazine, and added “no Native would do that. Especially during the 70s…The last thing we as Native women wanted anyone to think of us was as sex objects.”

Cruz admitted that Littlefeather made “desperate attempts to break into the industry” over the years, and it was likely made easier after she morphed her identity.

“Sacheen did not like herself. She didn’t like being Mexican. So, yes, it was better for her that way to play someone else,” Orlandi said.

“The best way that I could think of summing up my sister is that she created a fantasy,” Orlandi continued.  “She lived in a fantasy, and she died in a fantasy.”

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