While the Zuni Youth Enrichment Project regularly serves young people ages 18 and under, many people might not be aware that we also work with recent high school graduates. Through ZYEP, youth have the opportunity to serve as summer camp counselors — and sometimes, that journey with our nonprofit youth organization continues long after camp has ended.
Kiana Etsate-Gashytewa, 22, first worked with ZYEP in 2016. She had just graduated from high school, and she was spending the summer months in Zuni prior to leaving for university in September.
“My stepmom, Dawn Gashytewa, suggested that I help out with ZYEP Summer Camp, as I would learn a lot and have something to do before I left for school,” Kiana remembers. “At first, I was a bit hesitant, as I never worked with children… but I did have experience caring for my younger siblings and relatives.”
With her stepmother’s encouragement, Kiana reached out to ZYEP. It was a good fit, and through the years, she says it became increasingly apparent that she shared the youth project’s commitment to helping every child reach his or her full potential, and to developing the next generation of Zuni leaders and culture bearers.
“Growing up and going to school in the Zuni Public School District, there was a large emphasis on learning Zuni culture and language,” she says. “As a young Zuni student, I didn’t realize or understand the cultural significance or have much gratitude for the events and activities that we were taught. It was only when I left Zuni to attend College Horizons, a pre-college preparation program, that I understood how unique and vastly rooted in both culture and language we are as Native Americans and, specifically, as A:shiwi, Zuni people.”
That realization was critical for Kiana. It deepened her pride in what she calls the “complexities and value of being Shiwi,” and it awakened great care and consideration for working with Zuni youth.
“(I draw) from my past experiences to instill those values in the younger generation, teaching them who we are, where we come from, and how special we are as A:shiwi,” she says.
Kiana says her favorite ZYEP activities have involved Zuni culture, language, history, and well-being. In particular, she loved the Zuni social dances held during ZYEP Summer Camp.
“The social dances have special place in my heart,” she notes. “Every year, my campers would be so shy to practice dancing at the beginning, but then they would show up on the performance day dressed in their absolute best regalia. And they would dance their hearts out.”
Kiana says ZYEP has given her many valuable opportunities. For one, it helped give her a better understanding of her own community.
“I had been participating in school activities and sports, and I helped with familial obligations, but I wasn’t involved with the community beyond that,” she explains. “Once I began working with ZYEP, I was exposed to the greater population, made more connections, and was able to contribute more.”
While the youth organization’s summer employment in 2016 helped prepare Kiana for college, she observes that it also opened the door for growth and powerfully shaped her current path. After graduating from Northern Arizona University in 2020 with a bachelor’s degree in applied Indigenous studies and political science, Kiana now works for ZYEP as a youth development intern and research coordinator.
“As a youth development intern, I’ve been able to grow and develop my skills in navigating the online atmosphere of classes with the Zuni Middle School, Delap’na:we Oral History Theater Project and Camp, along with other projects that are in the works,” she explains. “In the research coordinator position, I am developing skills in partnerships with Global Strategies and Zuni IHS, working on app design.”
Kiana says the ZYEP team goes above and beyond to make sure that the quality of their work exceeds expectations, whether that involves carefully crafting the message on flyers to ensure it’s well received, or having deep conversations with Zuni cultural leaders about community needs.
“ZYEP goes the extra mile for the community and our youth to let them know we deeply care about our work,” she says.
When she’s not working with ZYEP, Kiana says she can be found running, hiking, cooking healthy foods, reading, making Tik Toks, and pursuing her interests in higher education, mentoring, and Zuni cultural connection and development. She also deeply values spending quality time with friends and family.
“My absolute favorite joy in life is being able to help raise and spend time with my nieces and nephews,” she says.
Kiana says her vision for the future involves continuing her education abroad in Australia or New Zealand. She would like to work on her master’s degree, as well as a possible doctoral degree.
“As I’m in the current stage of narrowing down pathways, I am to grasp a better understanding in the fields of education, policy and politics,” she says. “The possibilities are endless, and my journey is only beginning!”
When asked what she loves most about the Zuni community, Kiana is thoughtful.
“I love that we hold true to who we are as A:shiwi, with our ancient morals, values and beliefs,” she says. “The respect, kindness, compassion, dedication, collective support, and efforts to help one another is what I most adore about our community. As a young Zuni individual, you learn about these core values and principles through storytelling and life lessons, but sometimes you are unaware of these teachings until they reveal themselves to you.”
Kiana has her own related story. It comes from the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, which has hit Zuni Pueblo hard.
“We’ve had to endure vast changes in our daily lives and Zuni cultural/religious duties to ensure protection and preservation of our community, culture and ways of life,” she says. “Although there are many challenges, seeing our community come together in these unprecedented times makes me proud to be Shiwi. It shows us how truly resilient we are, and can be.”