For generations, Zuni people shared delapna:we during the winter months. These ancient oral histories each revealed a moral or lesson, and they brought families together for education and entertainment during the cultural storytelling season.
That storytelling tradition continues in the Pueblo of Zuni. And thanks to the hard work and dedication of Ho’n A:wan Productions, a collaboration between ZYEP, A:shiwi A:wan Museum and Heritage Center, Edaakie Arts, ShiwiSun Productions and other Zuni community members, it is taking exciting new forms.
The production company’s Delapna:we Project, now in its fifth year, brings community members of all ages together to share precious Zuni stories through the performing arts. While the project initially involved stage productions, it has grown to also incorporate animations and filmmaking.
Local father Willard Sanchez remembers when the project began in late 2018. He says Tahlia Natachu, now ZYEP’s executive director, reached out to him to see if he wanted to be part of it.
“When I first heard about it, I said, ‘What?’” he recalls with a chuckle. “I auditioned for a grandparent part. I didn’t know what to expect, but I was eager to meet the challenge.”
Although he was nervous, Willard says he leaned on his experience with the Zuni Pueblo Band. Over the years, the band has played in a variety of parades and ceremonial events, as well as the New Mexico State Fair.
“I had the jitters, though,” he remembers. “After the show, when we were done and all the lights came up, and I saw all those people? Oh my goodness.”
The community turned out in full force for the first two theater shows, which took place in February 2019 and February 2020. Then the Covid-19 pandemic hit.
Uncertainty rippled through the young program, but project leaders adapted quickly. In February 2021, they unveiled a series of animations to the public using Zoom technology, and in February 2022, they debuted a film production.
“We filmed ‘Turkey Girl’ at Chaco Canyon,” Willard says. “It was an honor to do that, because not everyone has been to the park and knows the significance of it. The 19 pueblos here in New Mexico and the Navajo Nation each have their own significance and meaning at that site. I’m so glad we were able to see it and learn about it, and we got a lot of comments about that film.”
Laughing, he added, “They wanted to know, will there be a part 2? A sequel?”
Willard says he is definitely going to be part of this year’s Delapna:we Project, and he’s not the only member of the Sanchez family to be on board. Two of his five daughters, 11-year-old Mariah and 9-year-old Deanna, also have been involved as performers since the early days.
“I like it because I get to meet so many new kids,” says Mariah, a fifth-grader. “I make friends with everyone. The plays are a good way to tell me about these old stories. I get nervous, but over the years, that’s been getting better!”
“What’s fun for me is learning Zuni language and culture,” says Deanna, a fourth-grader. “And playing, and making friends.”
Both girls have been involved with ZYEP’s Youth Sport program for years, participating in the annual basketball and soccer leagues, as well as Summer Camp. Now they have the Delapna:we Project as well, and Willard says he couldn’t be happier about sharing this experience with them.
“Being with them, I’m on cloud nine,” he says. “It’s such a positive atmosphere, and I love seeing them show what they can do.
“It’s a real honor, teaching the significance of our delapna:we,” he continues. “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.”
The community feedback has been overwhelmingly positive, and Willard says he feels encouraged by that — and by the increasingly large numbers of kids who audition for roles in the performances.
“I’m looking forward to where we’re going in the future,” he says. “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.”