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The Zuni Youth Enrichment Project announced earlier this week that it is expanding its Connect to Land initiative this year, with support from the National Park Foundation and the 11th Hour Project, a program of the Schmidt Family Foundation. The nonprofit youth organization plans to offer multiple trips to national parks in the Southwest, which also are home to sacred ancestral sites for the Zuni people.
 
On Mar. 12-15, ZYEP will take a group of Zuni young adults ages 16-24 to Moab, Utah, for a camping trip. The trip, which coincides with Zuni Public School District’s spring break, will allow these young people to spend valuable time in both Arches and Canyonlands national parks. 
 
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Next, on May 7-9, ZYEP will take staff and youth from its food sovereignty and art programs to Grand Canyon National Park, where they will engage in the Grand Canyon Cultural Demonstration Program. The food sovereignty interns will provide cultural demonstrations related to Zuni agriculture and food systems, while art apprentices will showcase their traditional Zuni arts. 
 
“This will be our art department’s second time visiting Grand Canyon, and the success of our visit last summer inspired us to do more,” said Tahlia Natachu-Eriacho. “We think the food sovereignty department will fit right in. In addition, we are exploring opportunities for our built environment youth crew to gain priceless hands-on experience at Grand Canyon, learning from the professionals.”
 
Josh Kudrna, ZYEP’s operations manager, said the youth project also will host a backpacking trip in Grand Canyon National Park this year. Due to construction projects within the park, this trip likely will take place in the fall.
 
“Our partnership with Grand Canyon National Park started with an initial backpacking trip in 2020 and has continued to evolve as both ZYEP and GCNP recognized the value in uplifting a Zuni presence and Zuni voices,” Kudrna said. “Grand Canyon is being very proactive with establishing deeper relationships and connections with tribes affiliated with the land, as are other national parks in the Southwest that currently serve as stewards of tribes’ ancestral sites.” 
 
Natachu-Eriacho said she also is encouraged by the development of these reciprocal relationships between the parks and Native communities. Not only are these relationships essential for the preservation of sacred places, they allow organizations like ZYEP to offer new experiences that promote resilience, health and connection to culture so youth may grow into their full potential.
 
“This initiative with Grand Canyon reflects our mission and the approach we have taken with youth programming for more than 15 years,” she said. “For example, when our youth experience the magic of a backpacking trip — carrying everything they need to survive on their backs, experiencing healthy challenges, and realizing their responsibility in protecting our culture — we are taking important steps toward preservation and sustainability.
 
“We appreciate Grand Canyon National Park for respectfully working with us, and for understanding that our projects are not typical tourist visits,” she added. “They are significant identity- and leadership-development experiences.”
 
Kudrna noted that these experiences are valuable for staff as well. While ZYEP’s Connect to Land initiative is youth-focused, staff members also build relationships with the sacred places in the stories they’ve heard all their lives. 
 
“Being able to provide that for our staff creates a significant ripple effect,” he explained. “When our staff members feel familiar and confident in these spaces, that allows us to bridge gaps with our youth. We also are building and strengthening relationships with land managers, providing new avenues for these significant places in Zuni culture to be protected and shared with future generations.” 
 
Grand Canyon is one of the Zuni people’s most sacred places. ZYEP has worked closely with respected advisors within the Zuni community to ensure the youth project’s trips respect necessary boundaries.
 
“We rely on the guidance, feedback and trust of our community and various advisors to inform our decision-making,” Natachu-Eriacho said. “The consensus from our well-respected advisors has been to offer these programs but also to stay clear of specific sacred sites. We shaped our programs to respect those parameters, because we know our youth need to have these experiences to be well-informed, knowledgeable future leaders.
 
“We must have relationships with Grand Canyon National Park, and other relevant national parks, so our cultural access, knowledge and resources will not be cut off from us,” she continued. “We must encourage our youth to connect with these places, and perhaps even to see themselves as park rangers, managers and superintendents, because people who have significant connections to these lands will do their best to protect them.
 
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)

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