Los Angeles’ sizable Native American community is often overlooked. Pamela J. Peters aims to change that.
If you manage to find Pamela J. Peters sitting in one place, consider yourself lucky. The “indigenous multimedia documentarian” is constantly bouncing from project to project and place to place.
“I feel like a windup toy every day,” she says.
Lately, Peters has been making more than her usual frequent trips between her home in Los Angeles and the Navajo reservation in Arizona where she grew up. Now in her 40s, she’s feeling the pull of tradition and family on the reservation against the hustle and tech modernity of the city where she’s established herself as an important photographer and filmmaker presenting the lives of contemporary Native Americans.
Peters’ mission is to break the conception of Native Americans as “ethnographic ephemera.” For her, it’s not just imperative that non-Native audiences see realistic depictions of indigenous cultures. It’s vital for Native Americans, as well.
“In our psyche, we have always seen [ourselves] through media, through movies, through literature presented through a white lens,” Peters says, adding that she grew up on John Ford films because her father was a huge John Wayne fan. To counter the deleterious cultural effects of how Native figures have traditionally been presented in mass media, she focuses on visuals that “change the way Americans see Indians today ... reflecting them through an indigenous-aesthetic lens.”
Peters’ most striking work is her photo exhibit and short documentary Legacy of Exiled NDNZ. If you’re confused by the title, don’t worry — Peters was too, at first.
They said, ‘This is what my grandmother must have felt like coming to the city.’ They felt they were stepping into their shoes.
“It’s a Native pop culture way of writing Indians,” Peters explains. “I saw it on the Navajo reservation — some kids were writing it on street murals. I thought, Oh, my God, that looks cool.”
As an illustration of a language and culture in transition, NDNZ perfectly suits Peters’ favored leitmotif. A commemoration of the U.S. government’s American Indian Urban Relocation program of the 1950s, Legacy of Exiled NDNZ presents stories and images of seven young Native Americans carving out adult lives in Los Angeles. The hook is a heavily stylized production that presents her subjects in black-and-white and in fashions that evoke the 1950s, when thousands of Native Americans migrated to California and other states for work through the voluntary program.
At least two of her young subjects’ grandparents had come to Los Angeles through the program. “They said, ‘This is what my grandmother must have felt like coming to the city.’ They felt they were stepping into their shoes,” Peters says of the photo shoots.
Peters has a personal connection with the subject. Her own parents went to Oakland, California, as part of the program, where her father did railroad work for a number of years before returning to the Navajo reservation.
As much as I don’t like its portrayal of [Native cultures], I’m just a fan of the classic era of old Hollywood.
A legacy of the program is a vibrant Native American community in Los Angeles, which numbers about 70,000 members of numerous nations. One of the main aims of Legacy of Exiled NDNZ is simply recognition. As Kenneth Ramos of the Barona tribe says in the documentary, “I want people to understand that L.A. has a thriving Native community.”
Peters employs a similar glamorous retro style in Real NDNZ Retake Hollywood, a series of black-and-white, studio-style portraits of young Native Americans striking poses reminiscent of Audrey Hepburn, Marlon Brando, and other icons of the period.
“As much as I don’t like its portrayal of [Native cultures], I’m just a fan of the classic era of old Hollywood,” Peters says. She points out that the first major migration of Native Americans to Los Angeles occurred during the silent-film era and early talkies period, when many came to work as extras in movies. Peters herself has worked as a cultural consultant and has referred Native talent for HBO, FX, Comedy Central, and MTV.
With two photo exhibits coming in 2019, Peters is solidifying her status among contemporary artists in the West’s biggest metropolitan area. But, like her subjects, who always seem to be in transition, she feels another world beckoning.
“I know who I am,” she says. “I’m a Diné woman; I still maintain that in an urban environment. But in a sense, the reservation is where your tradition and culture are maintained. My family is still on the reservation.”
It’s the tension in that transition — not between white and Native worlds, but between urban and reservation Native worlds — that Peters interprets with evocative glamour and a dose of nostalgia.
Peters has a speaking engagement at the Los Angeles Central Library on February 20, at 12:15 p.m. More information about the lecture can be found here. She will also be featured in three exhibitions beginning this month: Contemporary Traces on Ancient Land, February 9 – April 21, at Triton Museum of Art in Santa Clara, California, ERASURE: Native American Genocide: A Legacy, February 15 – April 14, at Reflect Space in Glendale, California, and Beyond Standing Rock: The Past, Present, and Future of the Water Protectors, February 23 – October 27, at Museum of Indian Arts & Culture in Santa Fe.
Photography: (featured, detail) From Real NDNZ Retake Hollywood, actress Shayna Jackson (Dakota/Cree) channeling Hollywood Icon Audrey Hepburn; (slideshow) Crossways, Heather Singer (Navajo) and Spencer Battiest (Seminole/Choctaw) at Union Station; Blessing, Kenneth Ramos (Barona Bands of Mission Indians) in Indian Alley; From Real NDNZ Retake Hollywood, actress Shayna Jackson (Dakota/Cree) channeling Hollywood icon Audrey Hepburn; From Legacy of Exiled NDNZ, seven young Natives at Indian Alley in downtown Los Angeles; From Real NDNZ Retake Hollywood, actor-musician Noah Watts (Crow/Blackfeet) channeling Hollywood Elvis Presley; actress JaNae Collins (Dakota/Crow) channeling Jane Russell; From Legacy of Exiled NDNZ, pictured in Los Angeles: Welcome to Los Angeles, at Union Station.