When her father yelled “Kill the Indians!” while watching his favorite John Ford Westerns, Pamela J. Peters flinched. “It created this fear within me,” recalled Peters, a Los Angeles-based photographer, filmmaker and poet who belongs to the Navajo Nation.
That memory stuck with Peters throughout her childhood as she struggled to reconcile the portrait of indigenous life that she saw in movies and television with the one she experienced in real life. “When you say 'Indian,' the first things that come to the majority of people's minds are feathers, headdresses, buckskin, long hair, braids. ...There's this fantasy image that people perceive,” she said. “I wasn't this savage that people saw, and what they kept trying to identify me as.”
Peters was 17 when she left her home on the Navajo reservation in Arizona and moved to Los Angeles. (“I was always an adventurous child,” she said.) While earning her bachelor's degree at UCLA, she saw Kent MacKenzie's 1961 docudrama “The Exiles,” and realized she belonged to a broader movement of urban Indians.
“He gave a voice to Native Americans at a time when Hollywood was recreating and redefining Indians on film [and television],” she said of MacKenzie. “I asked, 'What can I do to continue this story?' People need to know that's going on.”
Much of Peters' work explores the legacy of the Indian Relocation Act of 1956, part of a widespread campaign that saw as many as 750,000 Native Americans move from reservations to urban population centers between the 1950s and '80s.
“Policies were created to diminish us,” the filmmaker said. By relocating Native Americans, she explained, the U.S. government hoped to decrease subsidies given to tribal members on reservations and cease land occupied by them while feeding the blue-collar workforce.
“A lot of people don't realize that L.A. has a large population of Native Americans. ...They're teachers. They're doctors. They're attorneys. They're filmmakers. They're storytellers,” she said. “I really wanted to show that we are part of the history in Los Angeles and we are part of the culture in Los Angeles.”
Her multimedia project “Legacy of Exiled NDNZ” looks at the descendants of that first wave of indigenous migrants as well as those who came to the city at a later date. What began as a short film that premiered at the LA Shorts Fest in 2014 has expanded to encompass a full-length documentary and photo essay.
While “Legacy of Exiled NDNZ” seeks to educate audiences about indigenous people living and working in Los Angeles, her multimedia project “Real NDNZ Re-Take Hollywood” uses photographs and video interviews to examine how the film and television industries have portrayed indigenous people in the past.
"Real NDNZ Re-Take Hollywood," first exhibited in August at Los Angeles gallery These Days, recreates iconic photos of movie stars from Hollywood's Golden Age — re-imagining silver screen heartthrobs such as Audrey Hepburn, James Dean and Tony Curtis as Native American.
Peters said she was inspired by how closely the seven actors she recruited for the project – they include members of the Blackfeet, Dakota, Cherokee, Crow, Shoshone and Seminole nations — resembled their celebrity doppelgangers. “Every time I see them, I go, 'God, you could be a Hollywood star,'” Peters said.
Peters, who counts photographers Dorothea Lange, Annie Leibovitz and Cindy Sherman among her inspirations, wants viewers to consciously change the way they look at modern Native Americans.
“I really want to see Indian actors as actors, not just Indians playing play-Indians. We're always playing Indians — we play them for Halloween. We play them for frat parties. We play them at sporting events," Peters explained. "Let's see them as Hollywood icons. Let's see them as creative people.”
By doing so, she hopes society will perceive Native Americans as real people with names, not mere relics of the past.