The Red Road project

Carlotta Cardana

2013 - Ongoing

United States

"This is not a time, nor day in age for someone to grow up and not know who they are; to live with a loss of identity. Once you know your culture, your language and your traditions, no one can take that away from you. They tried to kill us, they tried to change us, but we are still fighting, we’re still here."

Danielle Finn (Sheena), Standing Rock Sioux Tribe

Sheena was one of the first people I met and interviewed for this project when I travelled to North Dakota four years ago. Along with writer Danielle SeeWalker, who’s also from Standing Rock, we had decided to embark on a long-term project with the intention to highlight positive and inspiring stories from Native America. We found that media tend to focus on today’s negative aspects surrounding this culture; issues such as drug and alcohol addiction, sexual abuse, poverty, poor education and high suicide rates which all seem to stem from the Indian board school era. Boarding schools began in the late 1800’s to colonize Native people, mainly the children. They were taken far from their homes, beaten for speaking anything other than English and forbidden from participating in their traditional practices. Today, rediscovering their own identity has since been a continued struggle to resurface, especially after such deep residual scars have been left generation after generation.

While it is certainly important to discuss and address these issues, there is opportunity to breathe life into just the opposite. We want to create positive representation of these communities and break stereotypes while aiming to inspire Native people within their own communities to use their heritage as a source of pride and strength. We decided to call our work "The Red Road Project": in various Native American teachings, the "red road" refers to the positive pathways in life. It is a fitting title for this body of work because we are illustrating how Native American cultures had to overcome “cultural genocide” and various attempts of assimilation. It honours the Indigenous people that are doing all they can to break through the odds stacked against them and bring forth the strength, sovereignty, and pride they have for their people and culture. The project features Native Americans from different tribes, all of them strongly connected and actively fighting to keep it alive: teachers, ethno-botanists, children, linguists, doctors, tribal officers, artists, veterans, activists. Alongside the portraits and stories, the project features landscapes and cultural details with the purpose of giving the viewer a broad perspective of the various Nations. No matter how unique each tribe is many similarities live among them especially when it comes to the land. The landscapes offer that unspoken connection.

“Native Americans know more about the environment than anybody else because we don’t just live here and struggle to survive, we participate with the earth, with the animals and the plants, we are not separate from them, they are relatives: they take care of us and we take care of them.”

Linda Black Elk, ethno-botanist from the Catawba tribe

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  • Tired of being constantly discriminated against, Andy Jones left his small reservation town in Arizona and moved to Los Angeles as a young man. Today he works at a support center for “Urban Indians” where he leads the senior group. He is also a traditional percussionist and member of a drum circle in Venice Beach.

  • A woman tends to the sacred fire centered among the seven tipis at Oceti Sakowin Camp. The encampment was formed in April 2016 to prevent the construction of an oil pipeline that destructed burial grounds and threatens the water supply of Standing Rock Sioux Reservation and approximately 18 million people living downstream.

  • When Evereta Thinn, 30, entered college as the only Native American in her English class, she realized that she needed to speak up and not be that stereotypical “shy” Indian that keeps to herself. She works as an administrator at School District on the Navajo Nation and aspires to start a language and cultural immersion school for the Diné (Navajo) people. She is photographed in Monument Valley, where part of her family lives, with her Ford Mustang. The car was given to her as a present by her brother, who passed away shortly afterward; it became her most cherished possession and a way of honoring her brother’s memory.

  • The term “Navajo” is not typically used within Native America, instead they refer to themselves as Diné (or “Dineh”) which is the culturally appropriate word for their nation and which means “Children of the Gods”. In this picture, the office for excursions on horseback in Monument Valley in Navajo Nation.

  • Crisosto Apache, of the Mescalero Apache tribe, is a published poet and also writes pieces that support the LGBTQ initiatives he is involved with as a gay Native man. When we met him, he explained that there is no word for “gay” in any Native American language, but is referred to as being “two spirited”. “Two-spirited” in Native communities is someone that embodies the attributes of both man and female spirits. Historically in many tribal nations, having a two-spirited person in your family was considered a blessing because many two-spirited people often went on to become holy people within the community.

  • The town of Shiprock in New Mexico is named after a nearby rock formation that resembes a ship. It is situated on the Navajo reservation in New Mexico, the largest and most populous Indian Reservation of the US.

  • Jarrod Ferris, Eastern Shoshone and Arapaho, lives on Wind River Indian Reservation in Wyoming. He has been riding bulls since he was a young boy and hopes to become a world champion one day "so he can buy his mom a house."

  • Heather Shannon Abeita grew up on a small farm on the Isleta Reservation in New Mexico, a community of about 3,000 people. Her upbringing has given her a strong desire to help preserve her community and the land. She is trying to pass a land and wildlife preservation bill on the Isleta Reservation. “ Agriculture is extremely important in my tribe not only for sustainability but and also for religious purposes. The corn is very sacred to us and we need a place to grow it and provide it to our own people”. She is photographed by the Catholic church in her village and she is wearing a traditional outfit that includes the manta (apron).

  • This bald eagle claw staff belongs to Desert Storm war veteran, Hanson Chee. The feathers represent each year he served in the military and the beadwork honors his father and grandfathers whom also were war veterans. The eagle claw was a gift from his father-in- law who caught the eagle while on a hunt.

  • Thípiziwiŋ Young, whose name is Lakota and means: Yellow Lodge Woman, dedicates her life to learning and teaching the Lakota language, a language that has been vastly dying over the last generations. She is one of the founding teachers to start a language immersion program for pre-school aged children 3-5 years old. Other tribes and reservations are now seeking guidance from what she is doing so they can simulate something similar for their fading languages.

  • A mural inside the Holocaust Museum at Wounded Knee, on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. The Wounded Knee Massacre was one of the biggest tragedies in Native American history and it was triggered by Chief Sitting Bull’s death. After forcing Native Americans into reservation life, on December 29, 1890, the US army killed almost 300 Lakota men, women and children. The massacre marked the end of the so-called Indian Wars.

  • Ula and Tim Tyler belong to the Eastern Shoshone tribe of the Wind River Indian Reservation in Wyoming. They have been living on the reservation since before the introduction of running water and electricity. The couple has been raising their great- granddaughter since she was very little, teaching her about "the traditional ways".

  • Elijah Batiste, age 14, from Pine Ridge Indian Reservation hopes to get into professional skateboarding. The skate park on the reservation was created by a non-profit organization in collaboration with Levi’s with the aim to offer activities for the younger generation. Since the park has been completed, a noticeable change has come over the reservation. "We've created a spark of life on that reservation that they haven't seen in a long time," says one of the project leaders.

  • Ishkoten Dougi, from the Apache tribe, is a renowned contemporary artist. He sits in his art studio on the Isleta Pueblo Indian Reservation in New Mexico. His artwork represents some of the atrocities inflicted on Native Americans.

  • A pole with a skull marks a grave on the Wind River Indian Reservation in Wyoming.

  • The high school sign of the football field on the Wind River Indian Reservation in Wyoming. Native terms and iconography are often controversially used outside Native communities as sports team mascots, the most notorious example being the Washington Redskins. This is often perceived as cultural appropriation and there have been several attempts to change the name and mascot.

  • Sage Honga, 22, of the Hualapai tribe, earned the title of 1st attendant in the 2012 annual pageant, Miss Native American USA. From that point forward, she has been promoting her platform encouraging Native youth to travel off the reservation to explore opportunities. In Native American culture, knowledge is power and the youth are encouraged to leave the reservations, get an education and then come home to give back to your people. Sage continues to speak to youth focusing on four fundamental principles: traditionalism, spirituality, contemporary issues and education. Sage is photographed at a sacred site of the Hualapai people and one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World, the Grand Canyon. She wears a hand-made dress and natural make-up on her face, traditionally used by the Hualapai.

  • The Grand Canyon is home for the Hualapai tribe, the "People of the Tall Pines". They believe that they were created from the sediment and clay of the river Colorado that flows at its bottom. The tribe does not have any casinos and its subsistence is based on the touristic exploitation of the canyon and the Colorado river.

  • Julian Ramirez, 27, is a single father who works at the local casino on Standing Rock Sioux Reservation. Shortly after the birth of his son Elijah, his partner left them. Long hair is a matter of pride among American Indians. Julian has never cut his son's hair and says that Elijah will not be allowed to do so until he turns 13.

  • The silhouettes of war chiefs on horses are engraved on decorative fences just outside Prairie Knights Casino, located on the Standing Rock Indian Reservation in North Dakota. The casino is a major source of employment to residents on the reservation.


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