Oscars 2024: The Complex History Of The Academy, Hollywood And Indigenous Talent

At Oscar’s 2024, Lily Gladstone made history as the first Native American woman to be nominated in the Best Actress category

Oscars 2024: The Complex History Of The Academy, Hollywood And Indigenous Talent

A still from Killers Of The Flower Moon. (courtesy: lilygladstone )

The Academy Awards, which began nearly a century ago in 1929, has earned itself several adjectives along the way – prestigious, glamorous, celebrated, iconic, distinguished; the list can go on. However, one adjective that has eluded the Oscar, as the awards are popularly called, is “inclusive”.  For decades now, the Academy has been criticised for being an all-white show [remember #OscarsSoWhite], turning a blind eye towards non-white racial and ethnic groups that have contributed to making Hollywood what it is. Some would argue that the Oscars' well-documented diversity gaps are but an extension of Hollywood's complicated history with people of colour and varied ethnicities. 

This year, the nomination of  Lily Gladstone in the Best Actress category [ Killers Of The Flower Moon] has trained the lens on Hollywood's acceptance of diversity, once again. Lily Gladstone is the first Native American woman in the Academy's 96-year history to be nominated in the coveted category. She had already received global acclaim for her Killers of the Flower Moon role including the Golden Globe award and the SAG award. She was also the first Indigenous woman to win the Golden Globe award in the Best Actress category.

While the Oscar was won by Emma Stone for her powerful performance in Poor Things, the news cycle has been dominated by the Oscars' relationship with Indigenous talent, courtesy of Lily Gladstone and her nomination.  

Lily Gladstone is the newest name on the very short list of members of Indigenous North American talent to be acknowledged by the Academy, over the years.

Indigenous North American Talent At The Oscars - Brief History

The first Indigenous North American talent to receive recognition at the Academy Awards was Chief Dan George in 1970, for his supporting role in Little Big Man. While he did not win, the nomination was exceptionally important due to Dan George's work as an activist for the rights of Indigenous people, and has often been considered a watershed moment in the Academy's history.

The second name on the list is actor Graham Greene, a familiar face thanks to his rich body of work including Maverick, The Twilight Saga: New MoonTransamerica, Echo, The Last of Us and Reservation Dogs, among others. He was nominated in the supporting actor category for his role in the 1990 film Dances with Wolves

Wes Studi was the first Indigenous North American talent to be conferred with an honorary Oscar award. In 2019, he was honoured “in recognition of the power and craft he brings to his indelible film portrayals and for his steadfast support of the Native American community,” and a career that spans over a hundred films including Avatar, The New World, and The Only Good Indian.His speech also succinctly acknowledged the uphill battle for Indigenous talent in Hollywood: “From the rolling hills, the plains of North America, to the mountains of Appalachia; from the desert beauty of Navajo Diné Nation to the gritty streets of Los Angeles, and the sound stages of Hollywood wearing motion picture wardrobe — it's been a wild and wonderful ride.”

Recognition For Other Indigenous Performers 

Over the years, performers of Indigenous descent from across the world have made their mark at Oscars. Before Lily Gladstone, other Indigenous actresses have secured Best Actress nominations at the Oscars, starting with Merle Oberon in 1935. She became the first person of Indigenous descent to be nominated for the Academy Award. In the same category, the next nomination came in 2003 for Keisha Castle-Hughes. She was the first Māori of Tainui and Ngāpuhi descent to be nominated for her role in Whale Rider, which was also a debut performance.

In 2018, Yalitza Aparicio became the first Amerindian woman to receive an Academy Award nomination for acting, for her role in Roma.

In the Best Supporting Actress category, Jocelyne LaGarde became the first Tahitian and First Indigenous person to be nominated for an Academy Award.

Legendary Sean Connery, of Irish Traveller descent, became the first person of Indigenous descent to win Best Supporting Actor. Similarly, Russell Crowe became the first person of Indigenous descent [Pacific Islander] to win Best Actor award for his role in Gladiator, in 2000.

Most recently, in 2019, Chelsea Winstanley along with her husband Taika Waititi became the first Indigenous people to be nominated for Best Picture for Jojo Rabbit.

Sacheen Littlefeather And The Historic Oscar Speech

One of the starkest examples of Hollywood's difficult past with Native American talent comes in the form of actress Sacheen Littlefeather's historic speech at the Oscars in 1973. It all started when Marlon Brando won the Best Actor award for his iconic role in The Godfather but refused to accept the award, sending Sacheen Littlefeather to decline it on his behalf. Sacheen Littlefeather, speaking for Marlon Brandon, said that the actor was refusing to accept the win due to "the treatment of American Indians today by the film industry".

The speech was not met kindly. Sacheen Littlefeather was booed off stage, heckled and threatened with physical assault. Some actors were even reported to have created a ruckus backstage. Years later, she told The Hollywood Reporter: “I was stunned. I never thought I'd live to see the day I would be hearing this, experiencing this. When I was at the podium in 1973, I stood there alone.”

In 2022, she received a formal letter of apology from the Academy Awards for the treatment meted out to her. “The abuse you endured because of this statement was unwarranted and unjustified…The emotional burden you have lived through and the cost to your own career in our industry are irreparable. For too long the courage you showed has been unacknowledged. For this, we offer both our deepest apologies and our sincere admiration,” the apology letter said.

Casting Conundrums – Johnny Depp In The Lone Ranger

In addition to ignoring Native American talent, Hollywood has also been accused of misrepresentation and miscasting. In Disney's The Lone Ranger, Johnny Depp made headlines when he chose to play Tonto, the Native American narrator of the story. As critics questioned Depp's casting, the actor claimed that he has Native American ancestry, possibly from a great-grandmother. “Since cinema has been around, Native Americans have been treated very poorly by Hollywood. ... What I wanted to do was play Tonto not as a sidekick -- like, 'Go fetch a soda for me, boy!' -- but as a warrior with integrity and dignity. It's my small sliver of a contribution to try to right the wrongs of the past,” he had said. The film under-performed at the box office and earned mixed reviews. 

Now, with Native American talent claiming the global spotlight, all eyes are on Hollywood, as it struggles to catch up.