ZUNI, NM (Mar. 29, 2021) — The show must go on, even during a global pandemic. For the Zuni Youth Enrichment Project in Zuni, New Mexico, that meant using remote learning technology, digital animation, and voice recording sessions to take its 3rd annual Delap’na:we Oral History Theater Project into an exciting virtual space for the very first time.

The virtual program had a measurable impact, with 93% of youth participants  reporting increased self-confidence, and 86% reporting a strengthened connection with Zuni culture and community. These post-program numbers represent 22% and 10% increases, respectively, from the participants’ entry surveys. In addition, 100% of the program’s leaders reported feeling a greater sense of purpose.

Delap’na:we are traditional oral stories that were a form of entertainment, intergenerational bonding, and education for Zuni people in the past. ZYEP started its Delap’na:we Project in 2018, when the leader of the A:shiwi A:wan Museum and Heritage Center, Curtis Quam, approached the nonprofit organization to find a way to bring recorded oral history to life through theatrical performance art; the first performance took place in February 2019, within the strict storytelling timeframe required to meet cultural protocols.

Last fall, ZYEP met with community partners to come up with solutions for the February 2021 performance. According to Andrea Pepin, program manager, and Tahlia Natachu, youth development coordinator, they weren’t sure how well a virtual program would work.

“This year, I was a bit nervous about losing momentum for this project, because how could we have a theater activity in the midst of a pandemic?” Natachu reflected. “But our community leaders are so brilliant and innovative, they made it possible. Not only were we able to successfully complete the program, it was done in such a meaningful, high-quality way. I am most proud of all our participants. They took the chance and stepped outside of their comfort zone to put on a production during one of the most challenging times our community has faced.”

“Right off the bat, our leaders knew how important it was to offer this activity despite the pandemic,” Pepin said. “We were shocked at how many people signed up, knowing it would be entirely virtual.”

Indeed, 30 people signed up to participate, including program leaders and 21 youth ages 6-18. Led by director Keith Edaakie and acting directors Leanne Lee and Tiana Cachini, the program kicked off with a weekly Zoom theater camp, allowing participants to gather virtually for team building, learning about the elements of theater, and voice and acting exercises. Then it was time for rehearsals and voice recording sessions.

Language coaches Norene Lonasee and Coleen Vicenti handled the script, Curtis Quam served as cultural advisor, and Aidan Banteah-Yuselew supported the team as junior theater assistant. Additional support came from ZYEP staff, including Pepin, Natachu, and Kiana Etsate-Gashytewa.

“Keith Edaakie, Robin Lasiloo and Michael Owaleon Sr. produced the animations, and Shiwi Sun Productions assembled the final performance piece using all the Zoom recordings, animation clips, audio, and other materials,” Natachu said. “They are incredible.”

The Delap’na:we Project initially aired on Feb. 25, with an encore performance on Feb. 27. According to Pepin, it was an enormous success on multiple levels.

“We had 220 viewers tuning in, from New Mexico but also from as far away as Ohio, New York, and Rhode Island,” she said. “We also got to witness so many kids coming out of their shells. The virtual setting seemed to create a greater sense of comfort for them, and I’m sure all of the laughter and good vibes this type of activity offers helped as well.”

Pepin also noted that the ZYEP staff was in awe of the artists who were able to bring the animations to life. These characters told the stories of “Coyote & the Badger” and “The Coyote & the Eyeball Race.”

“This form of digital art is something we haven’t ventured into yet at ZYEP,” she said, “but thanks to the amazing partners we work with, all of the characters came to life in ways we never could have imagined!

Natachu said ZYEP is dedicated to increasing the amount of Zuni language spoken each year in the Delap’na:we Project. Not only is this deeply valued by Zuni leaders and culture bearers, she observed that the youth participants thrived on it as well.

“They were so passionate about learning their language and their lines, and doing a good job,” she said. “Seeing their personalities and talents shine through was so rewarding. The group reminded me of how resilient our people are.

“I feel incredibly blessed to have been able to work alongside our community partners,” she continued. “I want to thank them for the knowledge and skills they shared: the Zuni Tribal Council, A:shiwi A:wan Museum and Heritage Center, Shiwi Sun Productions, Shiwi Ts’ana Elementary School, Ho’n A:wan Productions, and our Zuni community.”

In addition, the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services Centers for Disease Control (CDC), Substance Abuse & Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), First Nations Development Institute, Colorado Plateau Foundation, and donors across the country played vital roles in bringing the Delap’na:we Project to life this winter.

“The impact that this program has had in just three years is truly incredible,” Natachu said. “I hope all who tuned in enjoyed the show, and please give a shout-out to our movie stars when you see them in the community!”


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), 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.