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Sage Honga, 22, is photographed at the Grand Canyon, a place of great importance to her people, the Hualapai. Since winning the title of 1st attendant in the 2012 Miss Native American USA pageant, Honga has been encouraging Native youth to travel off the reservation to explore opportunities. Youth are encouraged to leave the reservations to get an education and then return to give back to the community. (Carlotta Cardana/The Red Road Project)

The Badlands in South Dakota are a sacred site for the Oglala Lakota. (Carlotta Cardana/The Red Road Project)

There are two portrayals of the Native American experience in the media, says photographer Carlotta Cardana. “[The media covers] a lot of issues like violence, addiction and poverty. And then the other side is the hippie version of the exotic Native American connected to nature who can talk to trees and the wind,” she said.

So Cardana and writer Danielle SeeWalker set out to change that. The pair traversed the United States, seeking out positive stories and role models in the community to capture the missing piece of the narrative. The result is called “The Red Road Project.”

Before each shoot, Cardana asks the subject to choose the location and the clothes they will be wearing to create portraits that are as authentic as possible. Sage Honga of the Hualapai chose to be photographed wading the shallows of the Colorado River at the Grand Canyon, a stunning place of great meaning and history for her tribe. But Cardana equally treasures the photographs that she has made in more humble settings. “It might be nothing amazing to look at, but that’s the most amazing thing when somebody just invites me into their house and into their private space,” she said.

The moment when SeeWalker, whose family is from Standing Rock Sioux Reservation, understood the true impact of what they were doing was when they met a woman in Jemez Pueblo in New Mexico. The woman invited Cardana and SeeWalker to her home for dinner after allowing Cardana to take her picture. As they were sharing stories, SeeWalker discovered the woman, like herself, came from a troubled past. Both had family members who had been incarcerated – SeeWalker in both her extended and immediate family – and it had deep repercussions in their lives. For an evening, they “ate together, laughed together, cried together. At the end of the night, we burned some sweet grass, and this lady that we met played music for us on her flute.”

But this is not the telling of a sad story. It is a story of how we are never really alone, and of how struggle can be a source of strength. As Cardana and SeeWalker continue on their journey, undoubtedly they will find even more stories that touch them personally but also bind the community together.

Cardana and SeeWalker are seeking subjects in California to participate in their project when they travel there in November and December. To get in touch, reach out on their website or Facebook page.

Julian Ramirez, 27, is a single father who works at the local casino on the Standing Rock reservation. Shortly after the birth of his son, Elijah, his partner left them. Long hair is a matter of pride, and Julian says Elijah will not be allowed to cut it until he turns 13. (Carlotta Cardana/The Red Road Project)

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 who were also war veterans. The eagle claw was a gift from his father-in-law who caught the eagle while on a hunt. (Carlotta Cardana/The Red Road Project)

Fast Eddie, left, a pow wow dancer, is pictured with social media celebrity Two Braids. (Carlotta Cardana/The Red Road Project)

A wooden pole marks a grave at Wind River Indian Reservation. (Carlotta Cardana/The Red Road Project)

Thípiziwiŋ Young, whose name means “Yellow Lodge Woman,” dedicates her life to learning and teaching the fading Lakota language. She helped to start a language immersion program for children ages three to five. Other tribes are working with Tipi to revitalize their own languages. (Carlotta Cardana/The Red Road Project)

Wooden structures in the shape of a tipi and a cross sit by the side of a road in Pine Ridge, S.D. (Carlotta Cardana/The Red Road Project)

Elijah Battese is a young Lakota boy from Pine Ridge who is pursuing his dream of becoming a professional skateboarder. (Carlotta Cardana/The Red Road Project)

A snowy road in the Wind River Mountains. (Carlotta Cardana/The Red Road Project)

Gina Szczur, 29, is a single mother and a federal police officer for the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe. She served in Iraq during her early 20s. After her brother’s mysterious death that left her family with unanswered questions, she decided to become a police officer to bring justice for other people. (Carlotta Cardana/The Red Road Project)

The grave of Wammi White Cloud, one of many teens on the reservation killed in a car accident. Car accidents and suicides are common among Native American teens, who kill themselves at rates drastically higher than the U.S. average. Youth suicide at Standing Rock has also been marked by clusters. One woman said ‘suicide pacts’ are common among high schoolers. (Carlotta Cardana/The Red Road Project)

Wahpe, a young Lakota girl from the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, in her bedroom. (Carlotta Cardana/The Red Road Project)

Downtown Fort Yates. Fort Yates is the tribal headquarters for Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, which overlaps both North Dakota and South Dakota. The main street is named after Sitting Bull, a highly regarded chief of the Lakota nation. (Carlotta Cardana/The Red Road Project)

When Evereta Thinn, 30, entered college, she realized that she needed to speak up and not be that stereotypical “shy” Native American. She is a school administrator in the Navajo Nation and aspires to start a language and cultural immersion school for the Diné (Navajo) people. (Carlotta Cardana/The Red Road Project)

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