This is not a time, nor day in age for someone to grow up and not know who they are; to live with a loss of identity. Once you know your culture, your language and your traditions, no one can take that away from you. They tried to kill us, they tried to change us, but we are still fighting, we’re still here.
Danielle Ta’sheena Finn, Standing Rock Sioux Tribe
The Red Road Project explores the correlation between Native American people and how restoring traditional practices and beliefs can heal residual scars of cultural genocide. The work is an ongoing collaboration with writer Danielle SeeWalker, an enrolled member of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe in North Dakota. Danielle’s direct connection to the culture gives us a unique approach to tell the story from a first-person point of view rather than through an “outsider looking in” perspective.
Beginning in the 16th century, the series of “Indian Wars, continuous westward expansion and several hundred signed land treaties led America’s tribal people to live on government assigned lands known as Indian reservations, which are still in existence today. The 18th century added a new layer of challenges with the beginning of the “boarding school era”. These institutions were designed to assimilate Native people with the motto in mind: “kill the Indian, but save the man”. Those that passed through these schools were left dealing with immense traumas caused by abuse, neglect, and separation from family and culture. The trauma was carried down through generations and has led to many of today’s issues including: land and language loss, high rates of suicide, substance and alcohol abuse, poverty, sexual abuse, incarceration and many health disparities.
Today’s global issues concerning the environment have been particularly affecting indigenous populations due to their deeply rooted connection with Uŋčí Makhá (grandmother earth). The Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw tribe of Isle de Jean Charles in Louisiana is facing land loss due to rising sea levels: their island is expected to disappear completely within 50 years. They are considered the first climate change refugees of the US and the government is working on their relocation. This creates a dilemma for the tribe and has devastating consequences of losing touch with their tradition and culture, which is so closely connected to their land. The Winnemem Wintu tribe of California is facing a similar challenge; their sacred Chinook salmon are rapidly disappearing from the local rivers since the construction of the Shasta Dam in the 1940’s. The tribe feels the duty to speak on behalf of the salmon to convince the government to invest in rewilding the ecosystem and preserving waterways in lieu of construction projects to raise the dam.
In the late 1800s, Lakota holy man Black Elk had a dream that prophesized a great suffering that would be set upon the Native people and that the 7th generation would have the sacred duty to take a stand for the people and the earth. They will take back what little culture and rights remain and amplify positive change for future generations that don’t yet exist. Today we see a clear rise of the 7th generation and the people featured in this work represent them. They are activists, teachers, artists, doctors, scientists, Chiefs, spiritual leaders, powwow celebrities, single parents. They have all risen above these issues and are on a path to inspire and foster change within their communities by strengthening the connection to the “traditional ways”.
The title of this work comes from various Native American teachings that encourage one to follow “the red road”, meaning to be on the path to positive change.