A 1961 documentary entitled The Exiles, by director Kent Mackenzie provided the first accurate portrayal of urban Natives; in 2013, Navajo filmmaker Pamela Peters picked up where The Exiles left off with a photography exhibit followed by a short film entitled “Legacy of Exiled NDNZ.” Her nonfiction works showed the current generation of Natives living in Los Angeles while maintaining connections with their tribal origins, countering Hollywood stereotypes which Peters states have not changed all that much. Now Peters is taking a longer view and planning a full length documentary.
“Our film will help viewers better understand the history of American Indian migration to Los Angeles, as American Indians are also part of the history of Los Angeles,” Peters said.
The filmmaker is seeking $15,000 to expand her short film into a full documentary to delve deeper into the lives of her participants and explore their dual lives as both urban Indians and as exiles of the Indian Relocation Act of 1956, still holding onto the connections they have with their tribal communities. The film will also depict the diversity of five different tribal communities, the U.S. policies with respect to American Indians, and tribal traditions. Peters’ crowd-funding campaign can be found at indiegogo.com/projects/exiled-ndnz-life-of-ndnz-living-in-la.
The struggles of those who went through the relocation process have not been lost on Dorinda Singer-Baca, Navajo, whose mother, now 72, arrived alone in Los Angeles when she was just 19 years old. Singer-Baca said the newly arrived Natives, “isolated themselves, but [her mother] never lost contact with who she was. She is a strong woman and she did well for someone who barely spoke English.” Singer-Baca is excited about the recognition that Peters’s is bringing to relocation as well as to today’s urban Indians. “I think it is wonderful that this is being recognized,” she said.
Singer-Baca’s daughter Heather Singer is featured in Peters’ photos and film. Singer said making the film has brought her greater understanding of the path her mother and grandmother so bravely walked. “It is very educational to see where my people came from and how they ended up here, and how isolated they were from other races. [My grandmother] had to do everything independently without knowing many people.”
Another featured participant in the film, Spencer Battiest, Seminole/Choctaw, has been crisscrossing the country between Florida and California since he was 15 years old. “The Natives in The Exiles, they were starting a new life, and it mirrored my own life; going into downtown LA, feeling that awkwardness,” he said. “I grew up on my reservation and I was very sheltered. By the time I moved here, I was an adult and could relate to the original film. The project has become so much more than the exhibit.”
Co-Producer Duane Allen Humeyestewa notes that many changes have taken place between the time the original film was released and the planning of the feature length documentary. “I look at the changes that have occurred for urban Natives since 1961 and how this documentary is a social study of urban Native kids today,” he said. “There really is a way to combine the dichotomy between reservation and urban lifestyles. It is a testament to balancing life on and off the rez. The millennials are able to navigate both cultures.”
Humeyestewa grew up on the Hopi Reservation in Northeast Arizona and attended a Jesuit boarding school from the age of 12. He believes the documentary not only leads the mainstream into the lives of the young people in the film, it is also a film to bring home to the reservations. “I want to demonstrate that there are ways to get out of the reservation, that you can position yourself to compete at any level, boost your confidence and self esteem. One of my goals with the stories of the seven kids in the film, if they can make it happen, anyone can.”
In the not too distant past, some of the more traditional people on the reservations were uncomfortable seeing the youth leave for the cities. Today, Humeyestewa said his reservation community “is happy to live vicariously through those of us who leave,” and they are equally excited when they return home “to help build sustainable communities,” he said.
“I notice a difference in the tribal colleges, the way they are drawing on the outside world” and infusing today’s education with traditional ways, beliefs and values, Humeyestewa said.
About the new film, he notes, “I suggested doing a full in-depth story and following the lives of those Pamela was already tracking. Now, we want to complete the shooting. Since we’ve started, one gal gave birth to a baby and another had twins. We are seeing the new generations come about, it’s like seeing the culmination of the project, with new babies being born in an urban culture.”
“Living in a mecca where films are created, our images don’t exist,” Peters said. “If they do they are distorted and created with stereotypes. My project is to bring a true imager of who we are: we are part of LA, our history is rooted in LA, and if we can raise the donations, this documentary will bring our culture and history to forefront.”
Fairuz 'Gladys' Dakam, Spencer Battiest, Kenneth Ramos and Heather Singer viewing their images for the first time in January at the 118 Winston Art Gallery in Downtown LA. Photo courtesy Pamela J. Peters.
Director Pamela J. Peters (center) with her Exiled NDNZ, from left: Gladys, Kenneth, Heather and Spencer in Indian Alley during the gallery opening in January. Photo courtesy Pamela J. Peters.