Circles are important symbols. They can represent many things for Native communities, and at ZYEP they take on particular power when we see our children grow into healthy, thriving members of our community — and then teach, mentor, and serve the next generation.
Meet Tahlia Natachu, our executive director. Tahlia was born in San Diego while her mother served in the U.S. Navy. When she was 3 years old, her parents decided the family needed to return home to Zuni.
“They wanted me to grow up in my culture, and I’m so grateful for that,” Tahlia says. “There’s no place like Zuni. I went to school here, and I loved it. There are the challenges that come with lack of resources, but we have so many caring people in this community.”
Tahlia and her sibling, Kobe, learned traditional values from their parents, who emphasized and demonstrated the importance of discipline, respect, hard work, and family. Tahlia says she appreciates what they gave her.
“I’m grateful for their resilience,” she says. “Mom and Dad overcame their own challenges to make sure we would have what they didn’t have. They made a conscious decision to provide us with a better life, breaking the cycle of historical and intergenerational trauma.
“They were very strict, which was hard during my adolescence,” she remembers. “But they were protecting me. They gave me room to make healthy mistakes, and my mom was very open about her own experiences.”
Tahlia says she set her heart on becoming a teacher quite early, as an elementary school student. She cared about doing well, and if she ever saw a classmate struggling, she would try to help.
Along the way, she also cultivated her interest in sports and wellness. Tahlia played basketball and volleyball at Zuni High School, and she also ran track. During her sophomore year, Dr. Thomas Faber and Zowie Banteah-Yuselew started the Zuni Youth Enrichment Project’s Summer Camp — and Tahlia was invited to serve as a counselor.
“The camp incorporated health, wellness, physical activity, and nutrition, all based in Zuni culture,” Tahlia says. “I thought, wow, that’s awesome. But why me? They told me that I was a role model for the younger kids. Just that conversation helped me take off. I realized what a responsibility we have, to take care of our kids; I loved the connections I made with those campers, and they affirmed my decision to be a teacher.
“I worked with ZYEP for three years while I was in high school, and then I went off to college,” she continues. “I felt it was my responsibility to get an education and come right back.”
Tahlia graduated from Zuni High School in 2012 and went on to earn a Bachelor of Arts degree in English from Western Washington University in Bellingham, and a Master of Arts degree in education from Portland State University in Oregon. She stayed connected to Zuni through ZYEP, working at the youth project during summers and breaks.
While completing her student teaching in Portland, Tahlia says she realized how much she wanted to go home.
“I shined when I focused on Western academics, but I found myself craving the Zuni language,” she explains. “Zuni kids are super special, too, and I missed them.”
So Tahlia went home in 2017, after her Portland State graduation. She took a job with Zuni Public School District as a 7th grade language arts teacher, which she says was a dream come true.
“I was 24 years old,” she observed with a laugh, “and I’d checked all my boxes!”
Tahlia taught in the classroom for two years. Then, ZYEP Executive Director Joe Claunch reached out with an opportunity for her to join the organization as youth development coordinator.
“ZYEP has always had such a special place in my heart,” she says. “I loved the classroom, but I’d learned that our kids need so much love and support in other areas. If their fundamental needs aren’t met, then school will never be a priority. But if you help develop resilient, healthy youth, then they will do well in the classroom.”
Ultimately, ZYEP’s holistic approach convinced Tahlia that it was time for a new chapter in her life. Nearly three years after she joined ZYEP, she became director of development; on July 1, 2022, she became executive director.
“My sense of purpose has never been stronger,” she says. “ZYEP helped build me up, and it’s taken me to places I never could have imagined. My campers when I was a counselor are now counselors themselves, and many of the old counselors are now ZYEP employees. It’s definitely circular, and intuitively, we know that’s always our goal. For all of us, and all our partners, our kids are at the center of everything we do.
“Personally, I can’t wait for my own son to join ZYEP activities,” she adds, “so he can learn about the strengths of our culture and support from our community the way ZYEP did for me.”