The Intimate Photo Project That Explores Contemporary Native American Life

A writer and photographer share rarely told stories of Native American tribes from across the United States.

The Intimate Photo Project That Explores Contemporary Native American Life

Photo by Carlotta Cardana

Carlotta Cardana and Danielle SeeWalker met 20 years ago in a Nebraska high school. Cardana, a foreign exchange student, had arrived from a small city in northwestern Italy. SeeWalker, an enrolled member of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, had recently moved from her home in North Dakota. Both new in town, they became fast friends. But it wasn’t until 2013 that they decided to collaborate.

“Carlotta has always been fascinated with my culture,” SeeWalker says, “and she didn’t know more than the romanticized ideas.” Together, they decided to explore issues affecting American Indians, and created the Red Road Project. The idea of the “Red Road” derives from a number of different Native American teachings; it speaks to the concept of striving to live a life of positive growth and change. The two friends have traveled together seven times throughout the United States, working with tribal leaders and members to help tell their stories. They hope to continue their project with trips to the eastern and southeastern parts of the United States, and eventually start a non-profit which will serve as a resource for Native American communities. Here, SeeWalker’s words and Cardana’s photographs illustrate a few of the stories they’ve found after six years working on the Red Road Project. For more, follow them on Instagram @theredroad or visit the project’s website. —AFAR Editors

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Photo by Carlotta Cardana

Sage Honga, of Arizona’s Hualapai Tribe, wears a handmade dress and traditional Hualapai makeup at the Grand Canyon, a site sacred to the Hualapai. Honga was the First Attendant (first runner-up) for Miss Native American USA in 2012 and used the spotlight to encourage Native youth to explore educational opportunities.

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This handmade ceremonial staff tells the story of the owner, Hanson Chee. Each feather represents a year that he served in the military, including his time in the Desert Storm War. The colorful beadwork honors his father and grandfathers whom were also war veterans. The eagle claw was a gift from his father-in-law who caught the eagle while on a ceremonial hunt.

Photo by Carlotta Cardana

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

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Julian Ramirez, 27 (at time of photograph), is a single father who works at the local casino on the Standing Rock Reservation. Shortly after the birth of his son, the mother abandoned them both, leaving Julian to be the sole caregiver of Elijah. Long hair has traditionally been tied to mother earth and nature among Indians, thus very symbolic and important. Julian has never cut his son’s hair and says that Elijah will not be allowed to do so until he turns 13.

Photo by Carlotta Cardana

Standing Rock Sioux tribal member Julian Ramirez plays with his son, Elijah, in Fort Yates, North Dakota.

Isle de Jean Charles, Louisiana

In a remote coastal area deep within Louisiana’s bayous, a declining number of families from the Isle de Jean Charles Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw Tribe live on a sliver of land. Their island home, Isle de Jean Charles, was once nearly five miles wide and encompassed 22,000 acres. At its peak, about 300 residents lived there. Since the 1950s, almost 98 percent of the island has disappeared into the Gulf of Mexico. Canal dredging, oil drilling, hurricanes, and rising sea levels have accelerated the land erosion that has forced most inhabitants to seek higher ground. Within the next 30 to 50 years, the island will probably disappear completely. The residents of Isle de Jean Charles are among the country’s first to be displaced due to climate change, but the relocation efforts have been fraught with complications. Although the tribe won a $48 million federal resettlement grant in partnership with the state of Louisiana in 2016, tribal leaders felt increasingly undermined by state officials during the planning process; in the fall of 2018, traditional chief Albert Naquin recommended the relocation funds be returned. For now, the community is working to find a better solution for their new home.

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Mark and Ocelia are in their late 70’s and two of the oldest people to reside on Isle de Jean Charles. The couple sits on their porch on an October afternoon while Mark strums his guitar. In his younger years, he was a source of entertainment for the community when he would play Hank William Jr. songs at the local dance hall. They are a couple almost untouched from the modern world and speak a fascinating mix of broken Southern English and French, very unique to this part of the United States.

Photo by Carlotta Cardana

Oxcelia and Mark Naquin are two of the oldest people to reside on Isle de Jean Charles. In his younger years, Mark entertained the community by playing Hank Williams Jr. songs at the local dance hall. The couple speaks a mix of Southern English and French that is unique to this part of the United States.

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The inlet of a bayou that was once plentiful for catching shrimp, crab and fish, all a major source of food for the people of Isle de Jean Charles band of Indians.

Photo by Carlotta Cardana

Local fishermen still cast their nets for shrimp at the end of this bayou on Isle de Jean Charles. The bayou once abounded with crab, shrimp, and fish before a small levee was built to resist tides. Now the fishermen are lucky to catch enough for a meal.

The California Delta

The lives of the Winnemem Wintu people have always been tied to their sacred salmon. And for more than a century, the salmon have been under threat. In 1872, the federal government established the first U.S. fish hatchery along the McCloud River on the Winnemem Wintu’s ancestral lands in north central California, disturbing the tribe’s traditional fishing practices. In 1945, the completion of the Shasta Dam blocked the salmon’s natural spawning route and caused flooding which left many tribal members homeless.

As the salmon population has declined, so have the numbers of Winnemem people themselves, dropping from 20,000 to 126. “Whatever happens to the salmon, happens to us,” says the tribe’s traditional chief, Caleen Sisk. The federal government recently passed a $20 million budget to raise the Shasta Dam another 18 and a half feet, which would flood the tribe’s remaining sacred sites. To raise awareness and to restore the salmon and the waterways they rely on, for the past three years Sisk has led an annual 300-mile journey called the Run4Salmon. By foot, by boat, by bicycle, and even on horseback, participants make a two-week trek, departing from north of San Francisco and going up the Sacramento River Delta to the end point near Redding. Along the way are stops for tribal ceremonies, concerts, and educational events. The fourth Run4Salmon will take place in September 2019.

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Photo by Carlotta Cardana

Winnemem Wintu men rest on a large rock in the McCloud River after the final leg of the Run4Salmon. The event promotes awareness and has helped raise more than $85,000 to restore the population of wild chinook salmon.

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Photo by Carlotta Cardana

The construction of the Shasta Dam in Northern California devastated the local tribal population, including the Winnemem Wintu.

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Chief Caleen Sisk of the Winnemem Wintu Tribe of Northern California holds a placard during a protest at the Bureau of Reclamation in Sacramento, CA. The tribe wants the BOR, who manages the Shasta Dam and is in charge of implementing fish and wildlife projects, to fund the restoration of the salmon project rather than spending funds on raising the dam. The expansion project is under way and it is expected to be completed in 2024.

Photo by Carlotta Cardana

Chief Caleen Sisk and other activists stand outside the Bureau of Reclamation offices in Sacramento, California, to voice concerns about the detrimental effects of dams on the local ecosystem. >>Next: Where to Try Native American Cuisine in the U.S.—and Why You Really Should Now

Danielle SeeWalker is Húŋkpapȟa Lakȟóta and citizen of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe in North Dakota. She is an artist, writer, activist, and boymom of two, based in Denver, Colorado. Her visual artwork often incorporates the use of mixed media and experimentation while incorporating traditional Native American materials, scenes, and messaging. Her artwork pays homage to her identity as a Lakȟóta wíŋyaŋ (woman) and her passion to redirect the narrative to an accurate and insightful representation of contemporary Native America while still acknowledging historical events.
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