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Native Angelenos: Filmmaker Pamela J. Peters Deconstructs Stereotypes

Pamela J. Peters at Indian Alley
Pamela J. Peters at Indian Alley. | Photo: Kevin Michael Campbell.

In partnership with Cornerstone Theater Company​: Cornerstone Theater Company makes new plays with and about communities.​

This article is part of an exclusive series about Cornerstone Theater Company​’s upcoming Hunger Cycle play, "Urban Rez," a community­-engaged production created in collaboration with members of the Native American community in Los Angeles. "Urban Rez," written by Larissa FastHorse, an award­-winning playwright and choreographer from the Sicangu Lakota Nation, reflects a contemporary story of urban Indians in Los Angeles through performances that examine the hunger that persists when culture, language, land and identity are denied.

Playwright Larissa FastHorse has worked to develop "Urban Rez" in response to her community's specific challenges. Her desire is to provide an experience that blurs the lines between theater, culture, and education and to present the play at outdoor venues, connecting audiences with the lands of the Native people of the Los Angeles Basin. The artistic process began by interacting with indigenous peoples of Southern California and learning about their culture, issues, needs, and aspirations. The end result will be an immersive theater experience that unfolds as part of an interactive cultural fair, held outdoors this spring at the Los Angeles State Historic Park and Kuruvungna Springs.

This series explores the play’s development process from the perspective of community members and artists involved in the project. In this article, multimedia documentarian Pamela J. Peters talks about relocation and the camaraderie of local Indians.

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In 2008, I saw Kent Mackenzie’s film, "The Exiles" (1961), a neorealist film that showcased a true depiction of Indians living in Los Angeles during a time when Hollywood cinema was generating stereotypes of Indians in Western films. I loved "The Exiles" because it gave a realistic portrayal of American Indians going through the U.S. Relocation Program. My parents, like many Indian families, migrated to various cities through the program, yet today many people don’t know about it. The film inspired me to do something -- to bring to light that we (as Indian people) have a history in Los Angeles.

Clearly, people from many cultures have come to Los Angeles and their stories have been told and acknowledged by the city. Plaques have been displayed showing their communities. However, American Indian migration to cities has not been discussed on a large scale. As a Navajo living in the city, I want our history to be remembered and I also want to pay homage to that first generation of relocated Indians of the 1950s and 1960s. I initially conceptualized "Legacy of Exiled NDNZ" as a photography project, but the idea to make it a film came about as I viewed the behind-the-scenes video and listened to the interviews of my seven young participants, each from various tribes (Lakota, Barona Bands of Mission Indians, Cherokee, Seminole and Navajo). The project grew into a short film which continues to be seen in the film festival circuit and educational outlets. Now, it has expanded into a feature-length documentary, entitled "Exiled NDNZ," currently in progress. I want to bring awareness of our presence and cultural contribution to Los Angeles; we, too, have a story woven into the history of Southern California.

Kent Mackenzie The Exiles and Pamela J. Peters
Image comparison of Kent Mackenzie's "The Exiles" (bottom) and Pamela J. Peters's "Exiled NDNZ" (top).

In Los Angeles, several communities are named in tribute to their cultures: Little Tokyo, Korea Town, Little Ethiopia, to name a few. Yet, even though there are approximately 175,000 American Indians living in L.A., there is no formal acknowledgment of our presence. What makes this even more upsetting is that American Indians didn’t just decide to move to the city. It was part of a U.S. program to remove Indians from their tribal lands for the purpose of capital and community expansion, which is why I used “exiled” in my title project. With respect to aforementioned communities, Bunker Hill is finally being acknowledged as the place marking Indian Relocation in films and articles, and this I believe is in large part due to Kent Mackenzie’s film. However, today our existence as tribal people is not known, so through my projects I want to share our history and I want Southern California to acknowledge that we are a part of Los Angeles history.

In keeping with this mission, I am working on another project entitled "Indian Alley," which features the original site of the United American Indian Involvement center that helped Indians in the 1970s. Much of the American Indian migration to Los Angeles was due to the Indian Relocation Act of 1956. Authorized by this act, the federal government offered American Indians the opportunity to work and live in major cities. For some this meant assimilation, for others, a better life than on their tribal reservations. The Native population grew from roughly 12,000 in the 1960s to more than 25,000 in the 1970s. Today, over 175,000 tribal members live in Los Angeles (the highest populated urban Indian community in the United States), many of whom migrated from Montana, South Dakota, New Mexico, and Oklahoma, and other communities. Many came in hopes of finding a better life, yet unfortunately wound up addicted to drugs or alcohol, and homeless. This is not uncommon when people struggle with poverty and depression in urban environments.

Opening of Legacy Of Exiled NDNZ
Photo: Pamela J. Peters.

It is important to understand that most of the first generation of relocated Indians were in their late teens and early 20s, fresh out of Indian boarding schools where they were forced to erase their Indian identities and sever ties with their communities. Today it is different, but then, most Indian boarding schools were vocational schools grooming individuals for low-wage jobs. In addition, in the 1950s and '60s urban development expanded exponentially, which encouraged people of other cultures to gravitate to cities looking for work. Despite the aims of the Relocation program, what resulted was fierce competition between Indians and immigrants for those blue-collar jobs.

In response to this problem, the United American Indian Involvement Agency opened its doors at 118 Winston Street in 1974, led by a young woman named Baba Cooper. One can read about her in old newspaper clippings, where she is described as a Sioux Indian whose mission was to help people who were living in the dangerous sector of Skid Row. UAII offered a home where Indians could recover from addictions. In addition, the center became the first stop for many Indians coming to Los Angeles for the first time; it was a place where they were able to reconnect with friends, loved ones, and family members. Bunker Hill in the 1950s and 1960s was a hub for Native Americans to unite, and by the 1970s and 1980s it ultimately became the Skid Row community at 118 Winston Street.

The site today is commemorated by artwork, created primarily by well-known Native American and non-Native American artists, yet all of the murals, regardless of the artist's ethnicity, comment on the history of Indians. It’s a central place where people came together and were able to find their relatives after relocation. It was, in a sense, a portal to the Native community in Los Angeles. Native artists are bringing new lifeblood to the alley and it has become a tourist as well as local point of interest. Art fans come to the alley to see work from Native American artists such as Jaque Fragua (Jemez Pueblo), Votan (Mayan), Steven Judd (Kiowa/Choctaw), Christian Armstrong (Akimel O'odham), Carrie Curley (Apache) -- the first native female muralist to showcase her work in the alley, as well as non-Natives like world-renowned artist Shepard Fairey.

 Kent Mackenzie's "The Exiles" and Pamela J. Peters
Image comparison of Kent Mackenzie's "The Exiles" (top) and Pamela J. Peters's "Exiled NDNZ" (bottom).

Indian Alley, indeed, has been reinvented and has recovered from its bleak, dark history as a sort of urban Wounded Knee, yet it represents the presence of Native Americans in Los Angeles. It provides the capacity to heal and recover, while contributing to the culture of Los Angeles in significant ways. While other ethnic groups have towns named after them, Native people get an alley, despite having the largest population in the United States. I want the city of Los Angeles to recognize the alley as a historical landmark and I want to share the contributions that these young Native trailblazers from the 1970s made for not only Indians, but for the city of Los Angeles.

Today in Los Angeles, there are many organizations -- such as the American Indian Community Council, the Southern California Indian Center, and the United American Indian Involvement organization -- that bring tribal members together so they can support one another in preserving tribal traditions and maintaining strong Native identities. For instance, through one of these organizations, I met other Navajos and as an urban exile myself, I rarely have the opportunity to speak Navajo. But when I’m with other Navajos, we talk, we laugh, and we share stories, and what’s even better is that we can carpool to go home for holidays and ceremonies. That said, these organizations are not only about connecting with your relatives, but also about making relationships with Indians from other tribal nations.

"Exiled NDNZ" by Pamela J. Peters
Photo: Pamela J. Peters.

Members of many tribal nations live here in Los Angeles. We know each other; we have that common connection as tribal people. I know Natives in the film industry, the corporate world, academia, and in the Indian nonprofit sector. When I was at the Indian Center, I worked with a guy from the Hopi Reservation, a young woman from the Lakota Nation, and a Cheyenne director. In film, I've worked with Lakota, Apache, Crow, Blackfeet, Cree, Ojibwe, Mohawk, and other tribal peoples. And while I was at UCLA, I had professors who were Ho-Chunk, Seneca, and Choctaw. There are many tribal nations all around Southern California.

Regarding my passion for multimedia: My work attempts to help deconstruct stereotypical depictions of Indians in films such as "Pocahontas" and "The Lone Ranger" that portray Indians as relics of a historical past. Such films invent Indian figures that no longer exist (if indeed they ever did exist); they turn us into ghosts, as if we are all dead. When Indians are portrayed in a current period, such as the ones in the Adam Sandler film "The Ridiculous 6," they are often the targets of harmful mockery. Living in the mecca of Hollywood, I want to show that there is a dignified Indian identity and great diversity in the city. For instance, when I tell people I’m Navajo, their first response is, “Oh, you don’t look Indian.” Their views have been shaped by the way non-Native filmmakers have portrayed us. So in my project "Legacy of Exiled NDNZ" and "Indian Alley," I want to showcase an Indigenous aesthetic of “real” Indians, as we are today. I want to show the diversity of tribal nations, the distinct identity of each of my cast members, the strong ties they maintain with pride to their tribal communities, and how their tribal identities can not only exist, but also thrive in large urban cities like Los Angeles.

"Exiled NDNZ" by Pamela J. Peters
Photo: Pamela J. Peters.
Kent Mackenzie's "The Exiles" and Pamela J. Peters
Image comparison of Kent Mackenzie's "The Exiles" (top) and Pamela J. Peters's "Exiled NDNZ" (bottom).
 Kent Mackenzie's "The Exiles" and Pamela J. Peters
Image comparison of Kent Mackenzie's "The Exiles" (bottom) and Pamela J. Peters's "Exiled NDNZ" (top).

 

"Urban Rez," Cornerstone Theater Company’s collaboration with the Native American community in Los Angeles, will perform April 7 ­- May 1.

 

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