LOS ANGELES – To American Indians, Marlon Brando (search) was a hero who began fighting for their rights decades ago, most famously in 1973 when he sent Sasheen Littlefeather (search) to reject his Academy Award for best actor.
In the late 1960s, the actor went to Washington state to call for tribes' fishing rights, appearing in ads with tribal leaders.
In the 1970s, he spoke out and donated money for the defense of Indians involved in a deadly standoff with federal agents at Wounded Knee, S.D., over alleged abuse and treaty violations.
"Marlon Brando's celebrity status gave him the world's stage to proclaim some of our most critical issues socially, environmentally and politically at a time when not many were paying any attention to our situation," said Ernest L. Stevens Jr., chairman of the National Indian Gaming Association (search).
Brando's best-known appeal for Indian rights came in 1973, when he won the Academy Award for best actor in "The Godfather."
Instead of appearing at the awards, he sent Littlefeather to reject the Oscar and voice his anger over Hollywood's portrayal of Indians in films.
"I think that was a pretty powerful statement by sending Sasheen to decline the Oscar. He was a contributor to the change of the image of Indians," said Michael Smith, founder of the American Indian Film Institute (search) in San Francisco.
In 1992, Brando called for his name to be removed from the credits for the film "Christopher Columbus: The Discovery."
Brando, who played Grand Inquisitor Torquemada, said the finished film did not show the explorer's role in the "genocidal obliteration" of Indians.