On a cold and unsuspecting December morning in 1890, the US Cavalry troops marched into a Lakota camp near Wounded Knee Creek on the Lakota Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in the Midwestern state of South Dakota in America. On that day, the regiment surrounded the encampment and carried out a massacre, killing over 150 men, women and children, records show hundreds died in the aftermath.
Only a week later, in an editorial response to the event, the young newspaper editor L. Frank Baum, later the author of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, wrote in the Aberdeen Saturday Pioneer on 3 January,1891, “The Pioneer has before declared that our only safety depends upon the total extermination of the Indians. Having wronged them for centuries, we had better, in order to protect our civilization, follow it up by one more wrong and wipe these untamed and untamable creatures from the face of the earth. In this lies future safety for our settlers and the soldiers who are under incompetent commands. Otherwise, we may expect future years to be as full of trouble with the redskins as those have been in the past.”
For centuries, the Native American culture and its people have been grossly mistreated and further misappropriated, often ascribing incorrect identities to a community that have a rooted foundation on the American soil and have been around long before the 18th century colonization. Often depicted in the media as historical figures, wearing buckskin, riding horses or living in teepees, these images still permeate the modern day idea of Native Americans, coupled with associations of addiction, poverty and lack of formal education.
In 2013, almost 120 years after the Wounded Knee Massacre, two childhood friends found themselves reconnecting in the great wen of London over a glass of wine. Carlotta Cardana, an Italian portrait and documentary photographer and Danielle SeeWalker, then a part of ‘corporate America’ and Lakota from the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe of North Dakota, began a conversation that would soon becomeThe Red Road Project. Cardana had read an article that detailed the possible sale of the sacred Wounded Knee land. This dispute led to the women talking about both a fascination for the culture and the experience of a media that only focused “on the negative issues in Indian country rather than the richness and beauty that often stay unmentioned.”
Four years and 15,000 miles later, The Red Road Project is a collection of stories and photographs that explore the relationship between the Native American people and their identity today. Working in partnership as photographer and writer combines Cardona’s photographs that capture the vivid stories of the people they meet, with SeeWalker’s direct connection to Indian country that offers an insider’s perspective. Gaining access began with photographing Danielle’s family and constructing an approach that the duo could work with and bring to the community as an example of how they planned to tell their stories.
The Red Road Project is not unique in its recognition of these misrepresentations, but their work is key to the reconstruction of this identity, stemming directly from the men, women and children that make up what we know as Native America. The stories, the people and the history, however, will remain unique, and for Cardonna and SeeWalker the core of their project is to inspire positive change.