Indian Alley: A Canvas of Cultural Resilience in Downtown LA

ART

Norine Holguin

8/24/20233 min read

River Garza and Jaque Fragua collaborate on a mural in LA’s Indian Alley, 2018. Photo by Stephen Zie
River Garza and Jaque Fragua collaborate on a mural in LA’s Indian Alley, 2018. Photo by Stephen Zie

Indian Alley, located in the Skid Row area of downtown Los Angeles, holds a significant place in the history of the indigent American Indian community from the 1970s to the 1990s. Officially named Werdin Place, this stretch of alley was adjacent to the United American Indian Involvement, Inc. (UAII), an outreach center established in 1974 that became a crucial hub for social, spiritual, political, and rehabilitative activities for the American Indian community in Los Angeles. During this period, Los Angeles was home to the largest Native American population in the United States, with over 100 federally recognized tribes represented within LA county.

A Gathering Place Amidst Struggles

The 400 block of Werdin Place evolved into a gathering place for members of Los Angeles' Native American community after World War II due to several factors, including the mass evictions during the redevelopment of Bunker Hill and the Indian Relocation Act of 1956. This federal law encouraged Native Americans to leave reservations and assimilate into cities, leading many to relocate to Los Angeles. Unfortunately, many of those who congregated on Werdin Place were afflicted by homelessness and substance abuse. However, it also served as a focal point where people of Native American descent could come together and find their relatives after relocating from reservations.

UAII, founded and directed by Baba Cooper, who was reportedly Sioux, provided essential services such as addiction management, hot meals, showers, shelter, and emergency medical care to members of the local American Indian community. Although UAII moved to a new location in 2000, it played a pivotal role in supporting the community during a challenging period.

Reclaiming the Past: The Artistic Revival of Indian Alley

In 2010, a single act of defiance by Los Angeles-based artist Wild Life sparked a movement to reclaim and commemorate the Native American history of a forgotten alley in LA's Skid Row. By installing an imitation street marker that renamed Wendin Place to "Indian Alley, Property of the People," Wild Life set in motion a series of events that would transform the alley into a canvas for Native artists to express their heritage and shed light on the struggles faced by their community.

Local street artists were recruited to install murals in the alley, highlighting its special heritage. These murals, depicting noteworthy Native American leaders, social activists, symbols, and positive social messaging, have made Indian Alley a significant site for Los Angeles street art. Contributors to the ongoing art project include prominent artists such as Maya/Nahuatl artist Votan, Jemez Pueblo Indian Jaque Fragua, and street art notable Shepard Fairey.

Amplifying Voices Through Art

These artists, along with others, have also collaborated with Native advocacy groups through an organization called Honor the Treaties, which aims to amplify the voices of Indigenous communities by broadcasting their messages to wider audiences. One notable collaboration involved artist Tommy GreyEyes and members of the San Carlos Apache tribe protesting the development of a proposed copper mine at Oak Flat, a sacred site in Arizona. GreyEyes enlarged a photo of a Native woman with a knife and wheat-pasted it onto a water tank across from the only grocery store in the area, ensuring that everyone saw it.

A Call for More Public Spaces

Despite the success of the Painted Desert Project and Indian Alley, there is a lack of public spaces dedicated to Native American-made murals. Both Randall and Ziegler express a desire for more public spaces like Indian Alley, with Ziegler questioning why there aren't more spaces like this in the entire country.

Conclusion

Indian Alley stands as a symbol of resilience and a testament to the power of art to reclaim and commemorate the past. The murals and outdoor artworks created by Native American artists not only serve as a reminder of the struggles faced by their community but also as a celebration of their heritage and a call to action for the preservation of their sacred lands. As Ziegler and the artists involved in the Indian Alley project have shown, there is a need for more public spaces dedicated to Native American-made murals, and it is through these spaces that the voices of indigenous communities can be amplified and their stories told.

Citation:

“Indian Alley Historic District.” Historic Places LA, www.historicplacesla.org/reports/17469153-10d4-4289-a78c-1f3cc5c7cc65.

“Indian Alley.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 28 Apr. 2022, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Indian_Alley.

Chernick, Karen. “How a New Generation of Native American Street Artists Is Leaving Its Mark across the United States.” Artnet News, 30 Jan. 2020, news.artnet.com/art-world/native-american-street-art-1757085.

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