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Throughout the United States’ complicated history, the stories of Native Americans have often been misrepresented and misunderstood in the cultural mainstream narrative — but groups today, such as The Red Road Project, are working to share Native American experiences as told by indigenous people.
Since European colonizers first landed in North America, Native Americans were killed, lied to and moved around, with Indigenous Americans being displaced from their own land. With the passage of the Indian Removal Act of 1830, the US government allowed European-Americans and their descendants to take land and forcibly move indigenous peoples to other areas. To try and avoid violence, President Ulysses S. Grant pursued a “Peace Policy” in 1868 with the goal of relocating tribes from their ancestral land to designated parcels. This resulted in many remaining Native Americans being corralled and effectively forced to live on reservations.
By the 1950s, reservations were seen by the US government as too expensive and The Indian Relocation Act of 1956 (also known as Public Law 959) was passed. The law attempted to move Native Americans to cities, but many struggled to adjust to this new life and faced hardships including discrimination and unemployment. BuzzFeed News spoke with Hunkpapa Lakota artist Danielle SeeWalker and Italian photographer Carlotta Cardana, co-founders of The Red Road Project, an organization who documents Native American stories and history through words and visuals, about the effects of The Indian Relocation Act of 1956.
How did your involvement with this project start?
Danielle SeeWalker: We’ve been working on The Red Road Project since 2013 and it began as two friends chatting over a glass of wine, which led to deeper conversation about Native Americans being represented poorly in the media. Since that time, we have covered many topics and have done a lot of field work in many various Native American communities from reservations to urban areas and everywhere in between. Now, we are focusing on the Indian Relocation Program as another sub-topic of the overall project. We wanted to highlight some root causes and uncover the buried histories that brought so many Native American people to urban areas. Many people don’t realize that over 70% of American Indian people today live off the reservation.
Carlotta Cardana: Danielle and I have been friends since high school and we always wanted to collaborate on a project at some point. The idea for the project came from seeing the contrast between how Natives are portrayed in the media and what’s going on in those communities. There are certainly issues and problems, but there are also a lot of wonderful things happening and it’s important to highlight those too. I also realized that much of what I thought I knew about Native Americans came from misleading history classes and Hollywood movies, so it was also a learning opportunity for me.
Can you tell me a little bit of the backstory behind the Indian Relocation Act and the images that you took for this series?
Danielle: The Indian Relocation Act of 1956 (also documented as Public Law 959) was a federal government law that was implemented to encourage Native Americans to leave Indian reservations, acquire vocational skills, and assimilate into the general population within urban areas like Chicago, Los Angeles and Denver. The United States came up with this plan to solve what was sometimes referred to as the “Indian problem.” The plan was to eliminate the reservations, which they were finding to be expensive, and the land was being realized as valuable.
Carlotta: As with the rest of the project, we decided to tell the story by focusing on the personal experiences of some people who lived it firsthand. We’ve interviewed and photographed everyone in a place that was important to them and relevant to their story, most often their home. We’re currently working on a short documentary film to go alongside the photographs and we are also doing extensive research in archives to include historical images and documents in the final piece.
How did you choose the people that you photographed?
Danielle: We wanted to focus on interviewing people in Denver, CO as it was once the headquarters of this relocation program. Since I live in Denver and am pretty well connected to the Native American community here, I was able to identify people to be part of the project that had direct connections to the relocation program.
Carlotta: We like to highlight people who are quite active within the communities and that are a source of inspiration. As well as Danielle’s connections, we partnered with local organizations to reach out to further people
What was your goal with these images, what story did you want to tell?
Carlotta: I really strive for my pictures to be accurate and truthful, I want the portraits to be about the person photographed as much as possible. As a portrait photographer, it’s natural to have ideas and plans ahead of the shoot but I prefer to have a more collaborative process with the sitter. Americans Indians have often been misrepresented in the media, or have had their photographs taken based on the photographer’s preconceived ideas. This has resulted in the strengthening of stereotypes and the idea that the Indigenous population is “part of the past”. My aim is to create images that belong to the 21st century, just like the people in them.
Danielle: Our ultimate goal is to tell stories of Indian Country by providing a platform for Native American people to tell their own stories using their own words and firsthand experiences. It’s also important for us to uncover buried histories that aren’t talked about or ever told in schools.
Can you describe the juxtaposition of the current portraits you took vs older archival photos and how they relate or differ?
Carlotta: A lot of people still think of headdresses, tipis and horses when you mention Native Americans, or that they only live on reservations like in “the old days.” This hasn’t been the case for over a century and the archival images help show that. Both the archival images and my current portraits show Natives fully belonging to the era they live in, which is not that obvious to many people. We also use historical images to help tell the story of what happened after colonization, for example during the boarding school era. There are some before/after portraits of children in the schools that are heartbreaking. It’s important to see those images because most people don’t even know that kids were taken from their family at a very young age and stripped of everything they had and knew. Finally, at times it’s really nice to see how traditions have continued and evolved by having the old and the contemporary side by side.
How long did the project take?
Danielle: The Red Road Project is still an on-going project that began in 2013. The current topic that we are covering is also still a work in progress. We began to research and work on this subject in early 2022. We plan to have this chapter completed by mid-2023 with an exhibition to showcase the work and stories.
What did you learn from doing this project?
Danielle: I’m still learning and will forever be a life-long learner. Each time we sit down with someone and interview them, I always take something away from that experience. It’s not very often that American Indian people have been given the opportunities to tell their own stories and experiences. In many cases, when we talk to people, it may be the first time they are reflecting on their life and telling their story out loud to someone. The historical trauma that our people have been through is extremely painful and it’s been transferred from generation to generation, but the resilience and the healing is what is so powerful. In a way, listening to others tell their stories out loud is healing for me and for what my own family has been through.
Carlotta: Doing this project has been like getting an education all over again, both in terms of history and also on a much personal level. History books can be very subjective to the country and the culture they belong to. It’s a story told by those who won wars and got into power. We learn that Native Americans suffered physical and cultural genocide, but we are not really told the extent of it and mostly, how the oppression still continues today. Listening to all the stories we collected during these years has also been a very humbling experience for me. I became well aware of my privilege as a white woman growing up in a loving family in a small town in northern Italy. I am in awe at the strength and courage of everyone we met along the way.
What do you hope people take away from this?
Danielle: Any time someone can take away something they didn’t know before, even if it’s just a small fragment of information, I consider that a win. I always hope that people will leave with lingering thoughts and a curiosity to know more. Being informed and then talking about it with others is crucial when it comes to American Indian histories. If you learn something new but don’t talk about it, that is a form of erasure and through this project and our work, I’m hoping to redirect that.
Carlotta: As Danielle mentioned, I’m hoping people will learn something they didn’t know or that things aren’t as they thought they were. I also hope it might encourage people to challenge their beliefs in general. To be curious and open, rather than afraid or guarded, to whom and what life brings them.
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