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Opening Doors: Zuni Youth Connect to Traditional Culture and New Opportunities in Zion National Park

ZUNI, NM (Apr. 15, 2022) — With support from the 11th Hour Project’s N2 Program, the Zuni Youth Enrichment Project, a Zuni cultural advisor, and a group of eight youth leaders ages 16-25 traveled to Zion National Park last month. The March 14-17 trip was the latest installment in ZYEP’s ongoing effort to connect Zuni youth with culturally significant lands in the Southwest.

The three-day visit incorporated plenty of hiking as well as meeting with National Park Service rangers to discuss their work and engagement with Native tribes. Participants also immersed themselves in Zuni history and life ways.

“I think one of the most interesting parts of the trip was getting to connect and spend time with the head archaeologist and an educational ranger,” said Josh Kudrna, ZYEP’s physical activity coordinator. “They showed us artifacts, petroglyphs, and ancestral structures that were just outside our campsite. They also spoke about the workings of the park service, including how to build NPS careers.”

“Our cultural advisor, Octavius Seowtewa, was able to sort through the artifacts, and he provided insights on what they were and how they were connected to Zuni,” added Tahlia Natachu, ZYEP’s director of development. “The rangers had been searching for ways to connect with Zuni, and this trip helped make those connections. We’re all excited to know that Zuni will be included in Zion park business from this point on.”

Seowtewa has experience working with NPS and other entities regarding culturally significant sites for Zuni, including Bryce Canyon National Park. This was, however, his first opportunity to work in Zion.

“I was excited for this visit, and I quickly learned that there was a much deeper connection than any of us were anticipating,” he said. “After meeting with the park’s archaeologist, we learned they have been trying to get ahold of Zuni to do collaborative work regarding the ancestral sites. The rangers took us to a site where we saw petroglyphs, and they brought out a box of artifacts. I let the youth try to identify several of the pieces, and it was great to see them recognize a few items and relate them back to home.

“I provided my insight and some education, not only for our youth but for the park staff as well,” he continued. “From that, good connections were made, and Zion will be reaching out to Zuni again so that we as ZCRAT (Zuni Cultural and Religious Advisory Team) can be aware of how to care for another culturally significant site.”

Kudrna and Kiara Zunie, ZYEP program leader, were responsible for organizing and chaperoning the trip. With Seowtewa, they facilitated culturally relevant activities and conversations throughout each day, including campfire discussions in the evenings.

“I admire Mr. Seowtewa and the work he has done and continues to do for our culture and our people,” Zunie said. “I am so happy he came along on the trip and allowed everyone to feel connected to our culture in more ways than one.”

“It’s important that our young people are centered in Zuni ways so they can fully appreciate and take advantage of these visits,” Natachu explained. “In preparation for this trip, Josh gathered feedback and reflected on past trips to identify the very specific activities and practices that connect our Zuni youth to their culture.”

These include offerings to ancestors, traditional prayers, entering and leaving practices that help establish the relationship a person has to a site, and ensuring that the Zuni language is the only language spoken during meal preparation and eating.

“These trips aren’t just fun, they are meaningful in different aspects,” Seowtewa said. “Our kids get to learn about career paths within the park service; the protocols of entering, being within, and exiting a cultural site; and their responsibility to care for it so future generations can learn from it.”

Kudrna said he appreciated having the opportunity to help broaden participants’ understanding of where their ancestors had been, as well as foster intentions to continue visiting and connecting with similar spaces around the Southwest. He observed that participants want to share what they have learned, find more opportunities to visit ancestral sites, and help others visit and connect as well.

“The way we centered Zuni culture and practiced language and traditions helped support the value of what we were doing there,” he noted. “Our young people returned home thinking about ways they can share this experience with their families and community.”

“What was important for me as a leader was to create a safe space that was welcoming for all participants,” Zunie added. “I wanted them to feel comfortable sharing their stories and perspectives. Our discussion prompts were carefully chosen, with a strengths-based theme.

“The trip provided great opportunities to create goals for personal growth and to continue solidifying our cultural identity,” she continued. “The knowledge and active participation from all our young people is what allowed us to discover our cultural connections in Zion. New doors were opened, and I cannot wait to see what comes next.”

Due to the success of the Zion National Park trip and the Mesa Verde National Park trip in 2021, ZYEP has created a Connect to Land Advisory Committee. This committee, comprising community members who are invested in stewardship and culture, will guide the youth project’s outdoor programming going forward.

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 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.