Where did the baby name Sacheen come from in 1973?

Native American activist Sacheen Littlefeather (at the Oscars in 1973)
Sacheen Littlefeather

Marlon Brando won an Oscar for his portrayal of Vito Corleone in The Godfather (1972).

But he didn’t accept it.

Instead, he sent a Native American woman named Sacheen (pronounced sah-SHEEN) Littlefeather to the Academy Awards ceremony, which was held in early 1973. Sacheen refused the Oscar on Brando’s behalf, citing “the treatment of American Indians today by the film industry.”

Right on cue, over two dozen babies are named Sacheen in 1973:

  • 1975: 14 baby girls named Sacheen
  • 1974: 25 baby girls named Sacheen
  • 1973: 26 baby girls named Sacheen [debut]
  • 1972: unlisted
  • 1971: unlisted

Where does the name come from?

According to Sacheen’s website, she was born Marie Cruz to an Apache father and a mother of mixed European descent. (She was named Marie after her maternal grandmother.)

While participating in the Occupation of Alcatraz (1969-1971), her “Navajo friends nicknamed her “Sacheen,” a word she says means “little bear.” She liked the name and took it.”

Several online sources tell me that the Navajo word for “bear” is commonly written shash or shush, and these are similar to the Sach- of Sacheen’s name. But the Navajo words for “little” are yaz (yáázh) and yazzie (yázhí), neither of which resemble -een, so I’m not sure where the second part of her name comes from.

How do you feel about the name Sacheen?


Image: © 1973 Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences

5 thoughts on “Where did the baby name Sacheen come from in 1973?

  1. I believe the -een means “little” and comes from the Irish but has been adapted in English. It is seen in words like “smithereens” (little pieces), and names like Maureen (little Maura), and Kathleen (little Kate). So perhaps, Sacheen does mean “little bear”.

  2. Thanks for your thoughts, Sacheen!

    The name does resemble like an Irish diminutive. Maybe that’s how the name was coined — maybe someone at the protest was named “Maureen” or something, and that’s what inspired the suffix.

    Intentionally hybridizing a Navajo word in this way, though, really undermines the whole idea of a “Navajo name” in the first place. Because it’s not quite Navajo anymore if it’s got a fanciful ending. (Especially one borrowed from an entirely different tradition.)

  3. There is a Sacheen Lake in Washington State. According to the lake’s website, the word means “lake of fallen trees”.

    Probably irrelevant but still noteworthy

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