Brittny Seowtewa says her passion for Native food sovereignty began with her grandfather. She just didn’t realize it until her family received some unfortunate news.

At the time, Brittny was three years into her college career at the University of New Mexico at Albuquerque. As she was coming to grips with the idea that she was no longer interested in what she was doing, she got word that her paternal grandfather had been diagnosed with stage 4 cancer.

“I was very close to him, so I left school and went home to spend time with him,” recalls Brittny, now 28. “We had so many conversations, so many special moments, that helped me re-evaluate my life. He encouraged me to pursue my dreams — to go after what makes me happy. He was a turning point. We lost him a year later.”

After she returned to Zuni to be with her family, Brittny took a job with the local senior center. This also had a profound impact on the young woman.

“Being around the elders was important for my healing,” she explains. “I got so much comfort from them as I was missing my grandpa. I also had a chance to explore my talents and express my creativity in a commercial kitchen. While working at the senior center, I had the opportunity to work with various well-known Native chefs who would serve as major influences in my career.”

In January 2020, after gaining experience and a food handler’s certification, Brittny became head cook. Then the Covid-19 pandemic erupted, and the seniors were no longer able to return for in-person interaction. The isolation from them resulted in Brittny wanting to take a different direction. Enter the Zuni Youth Enrichment Project.

Brittny had worked with ZYEP in the past, serving as a coach for the youth project’s summer sports camps and flag football league. In 2018, she had the opportunity to showcase her passion for culinary arts when ZYEP invited her to create a gourmet dinner for funders at ZYEP’s grand opening. Her menu featured traditional Zuni dishes prepared with a modern contemporary twist; she also incorporated ingredients foraged from Zuni lands using skills taught by her father.

When the opportunity arose in March 2021 to work with Jessica Quinlan, ZYEP’s Native food sovereignty coordinator, Brittny jumped at the opportunity.

“I knew the program, so when Jess called about the position, I was so excited,” she says. “I’m Jess’s right-hand person. Every day is so different, and I love everything about it — the environment, the other employees, the way they encourage creativity. That’s why ZYEP is so successful in our community.”

Brittny is deeply involved with ZYEP’s Food Sovereignty Internships for young Zuni leaders ages 15-24, the nutritious meals and snacks served at all ZYEP spaces and events, the in-school nutrition program in partnership with the Zuni Public School District, the community gardens, and the family at-home gardening and rain-harvesting program. For this growing season, 100 families registered for garden kits, rain barrels, and ZYEP Agricultural Support Team engagement.

“I’m looking forward to connecting with families and seeing how far they can go with their gardens, and how much rain they’ll collect,” she says. “I love seeing how excited the kids get. They come running out to meet us! The kids really motivate their parents. They are the future.”

Brittny says food sovereignty is a core component of Zuni culture. It’s an old concept, she says, that contemporary Zuni society must embrace as part of their inheritance from their ancestors.

“Our teachings and prayers all go back to agriculture,” she explains. “Our ancestors cared for their plants and grew their own food. They came together to harvest it, to dehydrate it, and to trade and share it. So food sovereignty is an old concept, but it’s new also. We need to relearn it.”

When she’s not busy working, Brittny enjoys cooking at home. She says she was inspired by her mother, a creative cook who always made meals and snacks from scratch.

“We didn’t have much money when I was growing up, and it was cheaper to cook at home,” she says. “My mom taught me that not everything has to be store bought, and when I helped her, she gave me her time and space to be creative.

“I don’t have particular favorites,” she continues. “It depends on what I’m feeling like, and how my day is going. Cooking is an expression of moods and emotions.”

Brittny also enjoys lifting weights, riding her bicycle, watching reruns of her favorite shows, and sewing. She says she needs to mix up her routine, as she gets bored easily.

“I like exploring,” she says. “I try to be as active as I can.”

And, she is dedicated to her work at ZYEP. She says she’s never had anything in her life quite like the youth project.

“I love seeing the kids light up when they’re here,” she notes. “They interact and get to know each other on a deeper level. That’s a key component here in Zuni, where communities are so small. ZYEP brings people together, and the more kids get to know each other, the better before they go to Zuni High School.

“I’m so grateful, so fortunate, to be part of this.”