In 2008, I first saw Kent Mackenzie’s film The Exiles (1961). It is a neorealist film that showcases a true depiction of American Indians living in Los Angeles at a time when nothing was documented and when Hollywood cinema was generating stereotypes of Natives in Western films. I loved The Exiles because it gave a realistic portrayal of American Indians going through the U.S. Indian Relocation Program. It also provided a multi-dimensional representation of the characters and a glimpse into the gentrification changes to what is now called the Historical Core of Downtown Los Angeles.
Mackenzie, a film student working on a project called Bunker Hill, met quite a few American Indians in that neighborhood and was familiar with the Indian Relocation Act of 1956. Knowing that he wanted to shed light on Native American issues, Mackenzie made the conscious decision to give voice to the American Indians he encountered in Los Angeles. The urban Indian relocation program was set up to lure young adults who were jobless after completing their education. Most of these young Indians received vocational training, rather than an academic education, at Indian boarding schools across the United States, which followed Richard Henry Pratt’s philosophy “Kill the Indian, Save the Man.”
The young American Indians were further enticed by offers of paid moving expenses and more vocational training for those willing to move off the reservations to certain government-designated cities such as Los Angeles. The flyers were appealing, promising a path to what many believed was an American dream. Most who migrated into cities were young twenty-something single Indians or young married couples. My parents, like many Indian families, migrated to a city through the program. Yet many people today do not know about the migration of American Indians to metropolitan cities, nor the U.S. policies of assimilation through programs that enticed young Natives to leave their reservation homelands, in hopes they would never return.
The Exiles film inspired me to bring to light that we Indian people have a history in L.A. and to address U.S. policies of assimilation of American Indians. Clearly, people from many cultures have come to Los Angeles, such as Asian Americans, Mexican Americans, and African Americans. But while their stories have been told and acknowledged, the American Indian migration to cities has not been discussed on a larger scale. I want our history to be remembered and understood. I want to pay homage to that first generation of relocated Indians of the 1950s and 1960s.
As for the conception of Legacy of Exiled NDNZ, I specifically asked tribal members living in Los Angeles whom I knew personally, and who bore a resemblance to the characters in The Exiles to be a part of my project. I also reached out to a few UCLA students and, to my surprise, they agreed to do it. One of the students was a second-generation relocated Indian, whose mother I had known for a while in Los Angeles. When I asked the mother if her daughter would like to be involved in my project I was surprised to learn that she would love to participate. So, now I had seven young adults from various tribal communities, most of whom didn’t know each other. I had a shoestring budget, but I was optimistic.
The initial concept was just going to be a photography project. I decided to use black-and-white photography to showcase the nostalgic history of American Indians that is rarely viewed. I wanted to represent a counter-image to the damaging and dated representation of the American Indian in the public psyche as well as to capture inhabited history and culture from the past to the future. I wanted my images to evoke both an historical and contemporary sensibility, showing the reality of the vibrant, passionate, smiling Indians living in an urban world of yesteryear and today.
I also wanted to get behind-the-scenes footage of what I was capturing, so I hired a video-photographer. I generated questions for my young participants, asking what they knew about the U.S. Indian Relocation program, what brought them to Los Angeles, and about their connection to their respective tribal reservations. I wanted viewers to get a glimpse into who they were as young American Indians in 2013.
We filmed for two days. The first day we shot at historical places where The Exiles was filmed: Main Street, Grand Central Market, and Union Station. I also filmed in the alley that has been coined “Indian Alley,” off of Main Street. My young participants were not familiar with the area. Stephen Ziegler the caretaker who currently lives in the building that formerly housed United American Indian Involvement (UAII), shared with them the history of the location while we took some amazing photos. This site was important to me because it also represents a trail of where American Indians gathered in the early 1970s.
After funding from the Indian Relocation program ran out, many Indians ended up homeless. The United American Indian Involvement Center opened in 1973 to help Indians living with addiction on the street. As in earlier times, many were still coming to L.A. in hopes of finding a better life, yet unfortunately winding up addicted to drugs or alcohol and homeless. This is not uncommon when people struggle with poverty and depression in urban environments. UAII became a first stop for many Indians coming to Los Angeles — 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 during the Relocation era. But by the 1970s and 1980s, 118 Winston Street, where UAII had been headquartered, was now Skid Row. This area — Indian Alley — has had a dark bleak history, but today it is commemorated by artwork created primarily by well-known Native American and non-Native American artists as a form of healing for everyone.
The Native population of Los Angeles has grown from roughly 12,000 in the 1960s to more than 25,000 in the 1970s. Today, more than 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 among other communities.
The second day of shooting was set up for recreating images I loved from the 1961 film The Exiles. I contacted Milestone before I started my project and shared my admiration for the film and how the film directly influenced me to generate a photography project. I also told Milestone that some of the young adults had not seen the film, so they provided screeners which I gave to my young participants to view and discuss in personal interviews on our second day of shooting. I initially was planning to showcase only an exhibition of black-and-white photography work reenacting scenes from the film, but after I listening to the interviews and viewing the behind-the-scene video, it grew into a short film project, which I entitled Legacy of Exiled NDNZ. My short film is shot in a neorealist visual aesthetic reminiscent of Mackenzie’s 1961 film. I truly feel it is a continuation of Mackenzie’s work.
Mackenzie didn’t like the Classic Hollywood cinema narratives or the portrayal of Indians in Westerns in the 1960s, and I feel the same way today. Even now, films with American Indian subjects, such as Pocahontas and The Lone Ranger, portray Indians as one-dimensional relics of an historical past.
Hollywood continues to invent Indian figures that no longer exist
— they turn us into ghosts, as if we are all dead.
When Indians are portrayed in current period projects, such in the Adam Sandler film The Ridiculous Six, they are often the targets of harmful mockery that perpetuates hatred and racism. Living in the mecca of Hollywood, I am determined to show that there is a dignified Indian identity and a great diversity in Southern California. For so long, when I have told 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, history books, and the education system have all caricatured us.
Knowing this stigma in society, I am determined to change it. Thanks to Kent Mackenzie’s The Exiles, I was able to start my path toward changing the way that Indians are seen in mass media. My project, Legacy of Exiled NDNZ, showcases an indigenous aesthetic of real Indians today and gives voice to young tribal members living and thriving in Los Angeles. I call my work “Indigenous Realism.” From Legacy of Exiled NDNZ, my work has expanded. You can see my other projects, photos, and poetry at www.pamelajpeters.com along with my current project #RepresentYourTribalNation, which I am fundraising to complete at https://www.gofundme.com/IndigenousLA .
I am extremely grateful that I was introduced to The Exiles at UCLA. It has had a huge influence on me and in more ways than I am able to explain. I am also grateful to Milestone for the restoration of the film that is now one of my favorite of all time and influenced me to Kickstart the many projects I have been doing here in Los Angeles, California.
The reflections and voices of American Indians have long been excluded from mainstream storytelling. In my work, I employ an indigenous, neorealist aesthetic to examine how Native American relocation history is part of California’s legacy and how the strong ties American Indians proudly maintain to their tribal communities and identities can not only exist, but thrive in large urban cities like Los Angeles.