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A Journey of Reconnection: Zuni Youth Experience Adventure, Understanding, and Healing at Mesa Verde National Park

ZUNI, NM (May 26, 2021) — On May 14-16, Zuni Youth Enrichment Project staff and a group of youth leaders ages 19-24 traveled from New Mexico to Colorado to visit the culturally significant lands at Mesa Verde National Park. The weekend adventure was made possible with support from Hopa Mountain, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) and the Centers for Disease Control (CDC).

Josh Kudrna, ZYEP’s physical activity coordinator and organizer of the Mesa Verde trip, said the excursion was a precious opportunity for staff and youth alike.

“We could go beyond the pavement of the visitor’s center and sidewalks and follow old pathways toward deeper connections,” he said. “It was an honor to help our community’s youth access those valued ancestral lands.”

According to Zuni religious leader Nelson Vicenti, who served as cultural advisor for the ZYEP trip, A:shiwi (Zuni) people used the lands now within Mesa Verde National Park as a stopping place on their migration journey to Zuni, New Mexico. Skilled architects, they inhabited Mesa Verde’s pueblos, pit houses, and cliff dwellings; they hunted and gathered to survive, and later, they became farmers.

Experts do not have a clear idea why the people abandoned their dwellings at Mesa Verde, but Vicenti emphasized that the people never vanished. They migrated to the current villages now known as the 19 pueblos, including Zuni Pueblo.

“The spirits of our ancestors live strong in Mesa Verde,” he said. “Their presence is very much present, and we must continue to educate others about our rich history — not what you find in books, but what we have been taught and continually practice to this day.

“I’ve had the privilege and honor of growing up and being part of our rich culture, which has been rooted in my being and into my family,” he continued. “Because of our resilience, we need to continue to practice our religion and teach the youth the importance of who they are.”

During their three-day, two-night park excursion, the Zuni youth and ZYEP staff members enjoyed hiking, camping, and tours, including an up-close tour of Square Tower House. Tahlia Natachu, youth development coordinator, said the days and nights were filled with discussions and laughter.

“Each day, we participated in hikes and visits to the various sites,” she said. “We walked on the same land our ancestors did, and we got a glimpse of what their lives were like. Each evening concluded with our group reflecting on the day’s experiences around a campfire before settling in for the night.”

National Park Service rangers provided access to the various sites and resources, shared information about the sites, and encouraged young people to consider becoming rangers themselves in order to share their own stories.

“A theme that came up a lot during the trip was that healing was happening that weekend, both contemporary and historical,” Natachu said. “That’s powerful.”

Brittny Seowtewa, a food sovereignty specialist for ZYEP who participated in the trip, agreed with Natachu’s assessment.

“The time spent at Mesa Verde was a spiritual journey of reconnection,” she said. “It also was a journey of reflection, to be able to see where our ancestors lived and how far we have come as Zuni people.”

To learn more about the Zuni Youth Enrichment Project and its programs, and for information about making donations, partnering with ZYEP, and volunteering, call (505) 782-8000 or visit And, to stay up to date on the latest news and events, follow the nonprofit youth organization on Facebook (/zuniyouthenrichmentproject), Instagram (@zuniyouthenrichmentproject), and YouTube (/ZuniYouth).

Founded in 2009, the nonprofit Zuni Youth Enrichment Project is dedicated to promoting resilience among Zuni youth so they will grow into strong, healthy adults who are connected with Zuni traditions. ZYEP fulfills its mission by providing positive role models, enriching programs, and nurturing spaces that contribute to the healthy development of Zuni youth. ZYEP strives to provide every child with the encouragement and opportunities they need to reach their full potential.