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Focus on Tribal People Takes Local Professor to Laos and Pakistan and, in an Unexpected Twist, to Southern California

For the last 15 years, Sheila Pinkel has focused much of her work on the differences and similarities between tribal people and urban people. The fascinating journey has taken the Pomona College photography professor to Hmong and Cambodian refugee camps in Thailand and Laos, tribal communities in the Baluchistan desert in Pakistan and in Laos, and Hmong and Cambodian immigrant communities across the U.S.

Two years ago however, a surprise twist in her work on a Los Angeles County Library mural project plunged Pinkel into a culture much closer to home - the Tongva (also known as the Gabrielinos), a native people who have lived in the Los Angeles area for more than 450 years.

To create the library mural, Pinkel intended to photograph Tongva artifacts from the local Southwest Museum, which is widely recognized for its Native American collections. Instead she found that because the Tongva often buried their dead with remnants of their lives, and because their material culture was not collected, there were almost no Tongva artifacts in the museum.

"So," explains Pinkel, "I had to roll up my sleeves and locate Tongva people so that they could teach me about their culture." She spent almost two years photographing Tongva artifacts and many days walking in nature with either Tongva or Western naturalists who showed her which animals and plant life were important to Tongva material culture. Edra Moore, of the Antelope Valley Native American Museum in Palmdale/Lancaster, was particularly helpful, she says. "That Museum focuses on artifacts that have come from the islands, specifically Catalina, and Moore was generous in allowing me to copy images of the artifacts in this collection."

In May 2003, Pinkel unveiled "Journey to Tovangar, The World of the Tongva," a 5 x 32-foot mural spanning a long wall in the Sherman Oaks Public Library. The colorful mural is a striking photo collage of locations, plants and animals important to the Tongva throughout the year and as well as native artifacts incorporating those resources. (Note: a scanned jpeg image of the mural is available.) A month after its unveiling, the mural and the creation process were featured in an episode of KCET Television's Life and Times.

Pinkel's is now working with the Tongva to create an interactive, educational CD of Tongva artifacts and culture for children. In working on the mural, she amassed an archive of thousands of photos, "probably one of the most complete photo archives of the material culture of the Tongva," she explains. "As a result, I feel the obligation to go the next step and make it available as an educational resource."

Pomona College has stepped in to help, awarding Pinkel a preliminary grant to scan all of her proof sheets and donating computing time to develop an interactive template that can be used as a teaching tool. When finished, the CD will display a series of photos and ask users to identify which Tongva artifact is analogous to which piece of western technology. When kids select the right answer, information about the artifact will come appear. Barbara Drake, a local Tongva scholar, is now to going through the proof sheets and selecting images.

The Pomona College Information and Technology Services staff will also develop the software module for the web program. Once the CD is completed, copies will be sent to all of the Tongva ceremonial centers and will be made available to schools. "Eventually," says Pinkel, "our goal is to have a photograph of every artifact on a CD and linked to a database of information about that artifact. Fortunately, Pomona has generously agreed to create that module as well and help with the scanning and data input for this second phase."

Currently, Pinkel's work "Without Alarm III," a site-specific installation of works related to custody, captivity and containment, is on display at the LAPD Experience Museum (6045 York Boulevard, Los Angeles), through August 30. She is also working on a City of Los Angeles Cultural Affairs commission to design a gate for Green Meadows Park in Los Angeles.

During her 2004-05 sabbatical, Pinkel plans to work on her book Hmong in Transition. "The book will trace the lives of an extended Hmong family who survived the second Laotian War," she says. "Some of the members of this family are in Laos, some fled to Thailand and some immigrated to the United States, France and Australia. I am interested in better understanding the long-term effects of war on the lives of people who survive it."

Pomona College is one of the nation's premier liberal arts institutions, offering a comprehensive program in the arts, humanities, social sciences and natural sciences. Its hallmarks include small classes, close relationships between students and faculty, and a range of opportunities for student research.

For more on Pinkel, read her Faculty Profile.