Photographer Pamela J. Peters is exhibiting her work today (January 5) at 118 Winston Art Gallery in downtown Los Angeles. The show is called "Exiled NDNz: A celebration of American Indian culture in the heart of Los Angeles." Peters, who was born on the Navajo Nation and has been photographing Native subjects for years, took a few moments to discuss her project with ICTMN.
Your show's title is a reference to Kent McKenzie's 1961 film The Exiles — can you tell us what that film means to you, and how it informs your work?
I think it's the best film that I’ve seen depicting the realistic imagery of who we are as American Indians. Especially during a time when Hollywood was creating stereotypical images of American Indians. It was a beautiful neorealism film made about us!
Like your subjects, you were born on a reservation, and now live in L.A. Can you tell us about that journey? Is there an autobiographical element to these photos, and if so where would we see it?
I came to Los Angeles in my late teens. I came out for a better life than what I was seeing on the rez. However, now that I’m older, I miss my life on the rez. My entire family lives there. The photos I took are more of a historical understanding to “Angelenos” of who we are as American Indians. I selected my subjects who are young-twenty something from various tribes — just like in the film. And I had them dress in a late-'50s or '60 style to pay tribute to the first generation of "exiled" Indians. My subjects are from various tribes: Seminole, Lakota, Cherokee, Navajo and a local Southern California Indian tribe. Just like many other cultures that live here, they all have a story, yet many people don’t know the history of American Indians' journey to Los Angeles, how it all came about through the relocation programs of the 1950s. I want people to see my images and short documentary as a historical understanding that we, as American Indians, are also part of the history of Los Angeles.
L.A. has the second-largest Native population of any American city* — do you feel it is a unified population?
I feel that through some of the Indian programs such as American Indian Community Council there is a unification of American Indians. We see each other quite frequently and we support others in their endeavors when we can. Additionally, we unify through community events and of course pow-wows.
What adjustments must Natives make when moving from the rez to a big city?
It can be overwhelming! It’s a fast-paced environment, but eventually you can adjust. Just don't get lost.
*Editor's note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified Los Angeles as the U.S. city with the most Native Americans; L.A.'s Native population is actually the second-largest, behind that of New York City.