March 26, 1990 12:00 PM

The last time Marlon Brando won an Academy Award—for his role in The Godfather’m 1973—he stunned the show’s worldwide audience of 80 million by sending a young Native American actress onstage to spurn the Best Actor statuette and read an impassioned statement about the plight of Indians. Next week Brando will be up for another Oscar—for his supporting role in A Dry White Season—and what the reclusive actor has planned for this year’s ceremonies is anyone’s guess. One thing’s for sure, however: Sacheen Little-feather won’t have a part in it.

“I’m officially retired as the refuser of Academy Awards,” says Littlefeather, now 43, who claims that turning down Brando’s Oscar 17 years ago made her unpopular in Hollywood and killed any chance she had for a show-biz career. “I went up there thinking I could make a difference,” she says. “I was very naive. I told people about oppression. They said, ‘You’re ruining our evening.’ ”

At the time, unpleasant post-Oscar press questioned both her credentials and her sincerity. Her subsequent decision to pose nude for Playboy did not augment her credibility. Nowadays, Littlefeather, who is half American Indian and half Caucasian, points to a long record of activism that proves, she says, “that I am not a fraud.” Over the years, she has worked with a group that encourages employment of Native Americans in Hollywood; promoted nutritional programs aimed at combating alcoholism, obesity and diabetes among Indians; and taken care of Indians with AIDS (her brother died of the disease a year ago). She makes her living talking about Indian and health issues to college audiences.

Littlefeather, who lives with her 23-year-old boyfriend (“If Cher can do it, why can’t I?” she asks, laughing), hasn’t heard from Brando in more than a decade but still thinks well of him personally. “He helped me to become an infamous person,” she says. “It definitely put me on the map.”

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