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.

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