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'Exiled NDNz' Photos Tell Story of Rez-Raised Natives Living in L.A.

Photographer Pamela J. Peters speaks about her exhibit 'Exiled NDNz'
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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!

Photo by Pamela J. Peters, from 'Exiled NDNz'

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.

Photo by Pamela J. Peters, from 'Exiled NDNz'

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.

To see more work by Pamela J. Peters, visit her official website For more information on Peters' current project, visit the L.A. Urban NDN Photo Project's GoFundMe page.

*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.

Photo by Pamela J. Peters, from 'Exiled NDNz'

Photo by Pamela J. Peters, from 'Exiled NDNz'