ZUNI, NM (Dec. 12, 2022) — On Monday, Dec. 19, the Zuni Youth Enrichment Project and its partners at Ho’n A:wan Productions will officially launch the 5th annual Delapna:we Project. Adhering to the strict storytelling timeframe required to meet Zuni cultural protocols, the 2022-23 project will begin with theater camp in December and conclude with the final performance in February.
The Delapna:we Project is designed to bring traditional oral stories to life through the performing arts. These stories historically served as the primary sources of entertainment, history sharing, intergenerational bonding and cultural education for the Zuni community.
A collaboration between ZYEP, A:shiwi A:wan Museum and Heritage Center, Edaakie Arts, ShiwiSun Productions and other Zuni community members, Ho’n A:wan Productions launched this ambitious project in winter 2018-19. Since then, the community has experienced delapna:we through stage productions, animations on Zoom, and even a film set in Chaco Canyon National Historic Park.
“Storytelling is vital to who we are as Zuni people,” said Tahlia Natachu, ZYEP’s executive director. “Unfortunately, by the mid-20th century, these stories and our sacred storytelling tradition were in danger of being lost. Thanks to funding from the Doris Duke Foundation in the 1960s, our community was able to record 19 elders sharing more than 800 stories.”
Curtis Quam, curator of the A:shiwi A:wan Museum and Heritage Center, said he digitized nearly 400 hours of those archived stories. Then, he contacted teachers.
“We experimented by playing the stories for the kids,” he recalled. “It was apparent that the kids didn’t understand the stories since they were in the Zuni language.”
Quam approached ZYEP in 2018 to see if there might be a way to bring delapna:we to life through the performing arts. With the shared vision of bridging that learning gap and creating a program that would resonate with the entire Zuni community, Ho’n A:wan Productions and the Delapna:we Project were born.
The first two years involved live theater performances. After the Covid-19 pandemic erupted, project leaders adapted and produced a series of animations to share with the public using Zoom technology in February 2021. A year later, they produced the film “Turkey Girl” at Chaco Canyon, a sacred site that is part of the Zuni migration story.
“We knew we had to find a way, because the community looks forward to this every year,” said Keith Edaakie, the project’s leader and director. “We wanted to keep things safe but also have face-to-face contact with kids.”
Darren Lesarlley’s first Delapna:we Project was “Turkey Girl” in 2021-22. He said he enjoyed it so much, he’s planning to return this year.
“One of my favorite parts was probably Norene (Lonasee, ZYEP youth development specialist) teaching us about the Zuni language and how important our culture is,” said Lesarlley, now 11. “My other favorite parts were acting with my acting group, and watching the movie at the end when it was all put together.”
Also returning this year are Willard Sanchez and two of his daughters, 11-year-old Mariah and 9-year-old Deanna. The family has been involved since the beginning.
“It’s a real honor, teaching the significance of our delapna:we,” Sanchez said. “Having our girls and the other kids be part of the program is very humbling. It feels great to be with the kids, helping them and teaching them our traditions.
“I’m looking forward to where we’re going in the future,” he continued. “We’ve lost a lot of the elders who knew these stories. This is a fun way to preserve them and share them with the public. We all look forward to this time.”
During the 5th annual Delapna:we Project, participants will have opportunities to learn the different aspects of the main production. They also will be able to experiment with their creativity; planned activities include developing content for the local radio station, producing a podcast and puppet shows, writing their own stories, and creating a coloring book based on a traditional story.
According to Edaakie, the project seeks to provide an environment in which youth feel comfortable practicing the Zuni language and are actively engaged in cultural revitalization.
“I grew up learning Zuni first and then English at school,” Edaakie said. “But for a lot of kids now, it’s the opposite, and that creates unique challenges. With our project, we utilize the language in our stories and scripts, and we want to give our kids a safe space to practice and speak.”
“If the culture is to endure major outside influences, we need to show our community why and how,” Quam added. “I feel we are in a blessed position to use modern tools and platforms to keep our culture and language relevant. My favorite experience has been seeing community members engaging, and refining ownership of where Zuni is going in the future. We now have a shared experience of Delapna:we.”
The youth project is currently raising funds to support this year’s Delapna:we Project. To make a contribution, visit zyep.org/donate.
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 zyep.org. 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.