Exiled NDNz in Los Angeles

106901.story_x_largePhotograph by Pamela J. Peters

By Matthew Fluharty

Indian Country Today recently published an interview with Pamela J. Peters, a Los Angeles-based photographer originally from the Navajo Reservation who works through her “indigenous lens” to “restore and reappropriate an indigenous visual sovereignty.” Peters’s photographs seek to present the expansive narrative of contemporary American Indian experience, and they do so through a lens that shares a stunning eye for landscape as well as an equally keen sense of urban space. From the reservation to LA, Peters works to “develop photographic narratives that illustrate the real stories of American Indians within the environments and communities that they live in.”

These gifts converged recently through Legacy of Exiled NDNz, an exhibition presented by the Winston 118 space in Los Angeles. Their gallery materials tell the story of how Peters’s project is self-consciously engaging with a previous moment in American Indian experience in LA, and tracing a continuous line through the stories of the next generation:

Peters’ project examines American Indians living in urban America; in this case, Los Angeles. Peters’ project (for now) focuses on young adults who have migrated from their reservations in the course of their own lives or are the offspring of families that relocated from various tribal reservations through the Bureau of Indian Affairs’ (BIA) Relocation program which took place during the late 1950s through the 1960s. Peters’ project will also showcase young adults of today paying “tribute” to the first generation of Relocated (exiled) Indians.

Peters’ says her project was influenced by The Exiles (1961), a film that was written, produced, and directed by Kent Mackenzie. Mackenzie was the only filmmaker at that time that documented ‘realistic’ imagery of the American Indian going through the U.S. government Relocation Program. Peters says, “The Relocation Program was for the following reasons: First, it wanted to decrease subsidies given to Indians living on reservations, even though those subsidies were granted in exchange for lands ceded during treaty negotiations. Secondly, the policy wanted to deceitfully take land that had rich resources for the purpose of capital and community expansion and, thirdly, they wanted American Indians to join the workforce of urban expansions.”

In 2008, Sherman Alexie and Charles Burnett led efforts to restore The Exiles and provide the film with its first theatrical release:

Visiting the artist’s site will reveal further information and portfolios, alongside many other articles and interviews conducted around the launch of Legacy of Exiled NDNzPasadena Magazine recently asked Peters how she came to reimagine this film in her own medium. The artist’s response illuminates how these photographs, in their shifting tones of hope and displacement, speak to the power of her cultural and aesthetic vision:

I was such a big fan of the film, and in my own work I had always wanted to accomplish something very similar. I think in order for Angelenos to understand us, they have to know the origin story of how American Indians came to Los Angeles. So the question for me was how can I do this where people can understand us, but without showing the cliched buckskin, and the dying Indian that a lot of people are familiar with. So I needed a beginning story, but one with a realistic depiction of where modern Indians are coming from.

The Exiles is the only film I’ve ever seen—a really important historical film—that captured how Indians came to American cities. Before I saw the film, I didn’t realize how many of my friends and their families had been relocated. It brought up a lot of questions for me. And I think when people see the film, and this project, who aren’t familiar with the history, it brings up a lot of questions for them too. My subjects didn’t all know how their family came here. They understood they were the second and third generation urban Indians. But they didn’t realize it’s not like we just decided to move here. There was a plan in place to bring us to the city. And I want people to understand that.

I feel like we have an untold story to share. The story of the African American and Asian-American city migration has been told. But the story about how American Indians migrated to the cities too isn’t widely known.

Pamela J. Peters’s project continues and is featured in a crowd-funding campaign seeking to create a photo book and educational resources. Please follow those links to find many more high resolution images of this photographer’s work.


Matthew Fluharty is the Director of Art of the Rural and a Research Fellow in American Culture Studies at Washington University in St. Louis