ZUNI, NM (Apr. 25, 2023) — This spring, 489 elementary-school students in the Pueblo of Zuni, New Mexico, learned traditional Zuni social dances through a partnership between the Zuni Public School District and the Zuni Youth Enrichment Project, with support from the New Mexico Department of Health. Six weeks of dance classes culminated with special performances on Thursday, Apr. 6, during Shiwi Ts’ana Elementary School’s “Indigenous Day 2023.”
ZYEP’s in-school performing arts program provides local youth with opportunities to connect to and express their culture through movement. Students learn Zuni songs and dances, learning the meaning behind the movements and traditional regalia. The final performances allow the young people to showcase what they have learned for their school, their families, and their community.
In addition to the traditional songs and social dancing, the performing arts classes also provide instruction on overall physical and nutritional wellness while incorporating the importance of art and mental health. Students engage in various lessons that include modern dances from around the world, the cultural and historical significance of running, the statewide nutrition curriculum “Eat Smart to Play Hard,” traditional storytelling through theater, food sovereignty, music and art.
“In our spring dance classes, each grade level had a specific dance to learn and perform,” said Tahlia Natachu, ZYEP’s executive director. “Our staff provided support by working on regalia, teaching the dance, providing the songs, drumming, helping the students get dressed in their traditional clothing, and serving as ‘runners’ to make sure the performances went smoothly.”
ZYEP Youth Development leaders Rani Yamutewa, Paula Kionut, and Norene Lonasee led the classes, in collaboration with well-known local singers Mangaysha Kallestewa and Cyrus Lutse. Starting on Feb. 27, the five program leaders taught 12 dances and songs to children in pre-kindergarten through fifth grade.
“I am extremely proud of the effort and performance from the students,” Yamutewa said. “They practiced with their heart throughout the weeks, and I loved the encouragement displayed between each other and love they reflected toward me. Always remember: ‘Don tse’mak a:wanikwa, Don ansammo A:ts’umme, Don A:deh’ya. Ho’ Dom I:chema.’”
On Apr. 6, the performances took place from 8 a.m. to 12 p.m. in Shiwi Ts’ana Elementary School’s parking lot. Despite the cold temperatures, families gathered to listen to beautiful traditional songs and watch the carefully prepared dances.
Students performed the Corn Dance, Turkey Dance, Deer Dance, Buffalo Dance, Rainbow Dance, Harvest Dance, Supai Dance, Butterfly Dance, Eagle Dance, Arrow Dance, Comanche Dance, and a Hopi/Navajo dance called Mu Batchu. What’s more, Filipino students in the group had the opportunity to perform their own cultural dance for their classmates and community.
“The children performed dances that have been performed in Zuni for generations,” Natachu noted. “These are the beginning steps to helping our youth connect more deeply to their culture.”
“For as long as I can remember, Zuni Public School District has hosted a Native American Day, now Indigenous Day, so all students have the opportunity to participate in traditional social dances,” she added. “I even danced when I was in elementary school! It’s a ZPSD tradition. We’re so grateful that the New Mexico Department of Health’s support allowed us to partner with the school and help with this important program.”
Florence Acque, assistant principal and bilingual program coordinator for Shiwi Ts’ana Elementary School, observed that Indigenous Day 2023 was a culmination of the students’ weeks-long engagement with ZYEP’s in-school performing arts program and Shiwi Ts’ana Elementary School’s Zuni language and culture program.
“This has been another great school year in partnership with ZYEP,” she said. “We appreciate ZYEP, the Zuni language and culture program, and their work with our students. We also would like to acknowledge the diverse cultures that are represented in our district; we appreciate the opportunity to experience their traditions through this event.”
In ZYEP surveys over the years, dance participants have reported a 33-percent increase in happiness, 17-percent increase in feeling healthy, and 50-percent increase in enjoyment of participating in Zuni dance. The program has an impact in the community as well.
“After the event, I saw posts from families with beautiful photos of their children in their traditional regalia,” Natachu said. “They shared how proud they were. We were extremely proud, too — proud f all the children, and proud of our ZYEP staff who worked so tirelessly behind the scenes to ensure that this would be a positive experience for everyone.”
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), YouTube (/ZuniYouth), and TikTok (/zyep09)
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.