In March, eight young people from the Pueblo of Zuni had an opportunity to go backpacking in the Grand Canyon, a sacred site for the Zuni people. One of those young people was Lakin Epaloose, and his trip into the canyon marked the culmination of a journey that began years before, when he was a high school student.

Lakin grew up in Zuni. Although he started playing basketball in middle school, he said he was consumed by his schoolwork through his freshman year of high school. Then something changed.

“I suppose it stemmed from traumatic experiences,” he reflects. “To heal that pain, I wanted to make myself useful to the highest degree and provide opportunities for other young people to prosper.”

As a high school student, he embarked on several independent projects. For one, he curated and hosted an art show in Albuquerque for nine Zuni artists of all ages.

For his Capstone Project during his senior year, Lakin created a garment construction and fashion design class proposal for the high school, designing the course outline and curriculum with the help of his peers and community members. He said it was an honors class with 10 students.

“I actually took the class with the seniors during my sophomore year, so I had that experience,” he says. “Then, when I was working alongside students my own age, I was able to help provide a vision for the project.”

Lakin had a third project during those high school years. He wanted to take his fellow students to various sites that are sacred to the Zuni people.

“I started working on that in fall 2021,” he says. “I wanted to create a more engaging environment, to give students something to look forward to. Something more than being trapped in the four walls of school. I think that came from my dad. He educated me about the importance of these places when I was growing up. He laid the foundation.”

For this initiative, Lakin worked with two classes of 15 students each. They were able to visit Mesa Verde National Park and Chimney Rock National Monument in Colorado, and Chaco Canyon National Historical Park in New Mexico. They were not able to make it to Bears Ears National Monument in Utah — or to Grand Canyon National Park in Arizona.

“I did connect with the tribal liaison at Grand Canyon National Park, I got all the permits and purchased all of the equipment with my own money,” Lakin says. “But in the end, there were only three of us, which wasn’t a great idea. It wouldn’t have been safe.”

Now 19 years old, Lakin graduated from Zuni High School in 2022. He couldn’t have imagined that, less than a year later, ZYEP Physical Activity Coordinator Josh Kudrna would reach out with a special opportunity: The youth project was leading a backpacking trip into the canyon, and the team wanted him to apply.

“I accepted the same day,” he says. “I was thankful. I felt like it was meant to happen.”

Lakin says the experience he had in the Grand Canyon was a profound one, as the group was disconnected from contemporary life and had opportunities to connect on a deeper level with the place, with their ancestors, and with themselves.

“I definitely felt more connected to myself,” he says. “I had more time to think. ZYEP is such an important resource. Their goals aligned with mine, and the trip is what I imagined it could be.”

Connecting with self and trusting intuition has had a profound impact on Lakin’s life, as well. While he originally planned to attend Harvard or Columbia to pursue aeronautical engineering, neuroscience or psychology, Lakin now seeks to build a career in fashion, art, architecture, music, and cinema.

“The act of creating gives me hope,” he explains. “I want to create, not analyze what’s already been created.”

In this year between high school and his post-secondary education, Lakin has been researching fashion history and developing proficiency in the skills he needs for a fashion career, such as sewing. He also has been working on his art, building his painting portfolio.

“I’ve applied to the Fashion Institute of Technology in Italy, and also to a school in Paris,” he says. “I want to travel abroad and live in the major fashion cities. I want to fulfill opportunities to expand my endeavors with painting as well, hosting art shows and building that international network.”

Lakin notes that his Zuni culture is present in everything he does.

“It’s my entire life, my foundation,” he says. He also observes that his artistic vision for fashion mirrors the vision he had as a student, wanting to give his peers access to the opportunities and places that would bring healing.

“I want to bring people together,” he explains. “Fashion isn’t just about clothes or following trends. It’s a way to express my pain, confidence, and identity. For me, it’s a way to build a community, to be egalitarian. I hope to bring the best design to the table that is accessible to all. I dream of the day that I found my own fashion house that is based in Zuni.”