Telling Indigenous Stories to a New — and Global — Audience

Sign in to save article
Pictured above, from left: Amanda (left) and Linda (right) Teller are from a family of Diné (Navajo) singers, pictured at Canyon De Chelly in Navajo Nation; Gina, a mother, Army veteran and federal police officer for the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe; Everta is a Diné (Navajo) woman, pictured with her Ford Mustang in Monument Valley. She hopes one day to open a cultural and language immersion school for her community.

---

It was 22 years ago that Carlotta Cardana and Danielle SeeWalker met in Fremont, Nebraska. Both were high schoolers, with Cardana living in the U.S. as an exchange student from Italy and SeeWalker an enrolled member of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, having just moved to town with her family.

As newcomers in an unfamiliar place, the two easily struck a friendship, one that grew as they taught each other about their homelands and bonded over dreams for the future.

For Cardana, whose knowledge of Native Americans until then was limited to the one-dimensional images of Indigenous tribes of the Great Plains often depicted in Hollywood films, it was a real-life education in the history of the original inhabitants of the Americas and what it meant to be an American Indian.

To SeeWalker, a budding writer and artist who dreamed of one day having a platform to tell the stories of Indigenous people, it was a lesson on the power of one-on-one relationships in combating stereotypes and creating change.

Not Your Typical Native American Stories

As they grew up and moved apart, they kept in touch. Cardana became a photographer and SeeWalker a storyteller and visual artist, and as their own careers grew, they often talked about one day teaming up for a creative project that would reflect their shared journeys.

Now, that vision is reality with the Red Road Project. Born seven years ago as a culmination of Cardana and SeeWalker's cultural exchange, it now includes a website, social media platforms, and museum exhibits documenting positive, uplifting stories showcasing the diversity of Indigenous communities in the Americas — from urbanites in California to those living on rural reservations of the Dakotas.

"In a lot of media, you see stories highlighted about all the negative things: poverty, alcoholism, and high rates of suicide that go on in Indian country. We want to focus on the stories of resilience."

Together, Cardana and SeeWalker have visited dozens of communities across the U.S., with plans for many more after coronavirus-related traveling restrictions are lifted. In Cherokee Nation, they’ve documented language preservation, such as American Indians translating stop signs into Native languages. From the Isle de Jean Charles in Southern Louisiana, they’ve told stories of perseverance amid devastating effects of climate change to the land inhabited by descendants of the Biloxi, Chitimacha, and Choctaw tribes. In Northern California, they’ve joined the Winnemem Wintu as they try to restore sacred Chinook salmon to the waters of the McCloud River.

“In a lot of media, you see stories highlighted about all the negative things: poverty, alcoholism, and high rates of suicide that go on in Indian country,” says SeeWalker, a mother of three who now lives in Denver. After a long history of mistreatment at the hands of settlers and modern governments, stories about the plights of many Native communities aren’t always inaccurate, she says, but they miss the full picture. “We want to focus on the stories of resilience in Indian Country, despite several attempts of cultural genocide, despite several attempts of assimilation.”

The Red Road Project pulls no punches from the dark side of America’s history with the land’s original inhabitants, such as violent conversions to Christianity — the Mission system in California being among the most notable — forced migrations, such as the Trail of Tears, and the 19th-century boarding school era, when tens of thousands of Native children were taken from their families and sent to schools designed to remove their Native identity and culture.

Complicating the Narrative

But the project, which takes its name from the symbol of the “red road” that’s found in many Native American teachings that describes positive pathways in life, aims to complicate the narratives. The history of Natives in the Americas includes a lot of bad, and a lot of good, despite all that’s gone wrong.

Each feature on the Red Road Project is accompanied by detailed captions and text explaining the stories behind Cardana’s images.

One project the Red Road Project currently highlights is a series of photo essays about life on reservations. On one hand, the two profile a man named Vincent of Pyramid Lake Indian reservation in Northern Nevada, one of the many Native Americans today who is diabetic. (Native communities are more likely than any other racial group to have diabetes, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.) They also look at the housing crisis on reservations, where around 40% of homes are inadequate, according to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights.

Yet, on the same page, Cardana and SeeWalker profile Ula and Tim. The caption says, “This Eastern Shoshone couple have been married for 54 years and have experienced reservation life before there was electricity or running water on the Wind River Indian reservation in Wyoming. They proudly sit in their living room with a collage of family photos behind them.” The duo also share the story of Gina, “a single mother, Army veteran, and a federal police officer for the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe.”

This year, the Red Road Project released Still Here: A Past to Present Insight to Native American People and Culture, an educational guidebook based on their travels that aims to be an easy-to-read primer to Native American history and culture. Pitched toward classrooms and those who have had little experience with Indigenous people, the book covers such topics as colonization, boarding and language schools, treaties, reservations, activism, and missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls, among other topics.

In addition to English, the book is available in Italian, a symbol of the cultures and boundaries crossed by the women who came together to create it.

“We are trying to build a bridge — and we are that bridge,” says Cardana. “Our partnership is unique, as we are not just outsiders and not just insiders to Native communities. We together are both, and hope we can be an example of what we want to help others create.”

Tags: Social Justice, Empowerment, Navigating the Pandemic, Overcoming Adversity, BIPOC, Women's History Month

Sign in to save article
Share

Written By

JD Turner

JD Turner is a writer and puppy parent based in Los Angeles. See Full Bio

CircleAround is owned by One GS Media, a subsidiary of Girl Scouts of the USA, and we make financial distributions to benefit the next generation of Girl Scouts. We strive to make the world a better place by supporting each other today and emboldening the women leaders of tomorrow.

Love this article?

Sign up for the newsletter to get the best of CircleAround delivered right to your inbox.

Welcome
to our circle.

We're women, just like you, sharing our struggles and our triumphs to make connections and build a community.

We also make financial distributions to benefit the next generation of Girl Scouts.

About Us