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Zuni Youth Enrichment Program helps young adults rekindle cultural ties to the Grand Canyon

Six Zuni youth spent three days hiking and exploring their cultural ties and connections to the Grand Canyon through the Zuni Youth Enrichment Program.  (Photos/Zuni Youth Enricment Program)

Six Zuni youth spent three days hiking and exploring their cultural ties and connections to the Grand Canyon through the Zuni Youth Enrichment Program. (Photos/Zuni Youth Enricment Program)

GRAND CANYON, Ariz. — Even though the Zuni tribe is more than 250 miles away from the Grand Canyon, the connection remains strong — this is the reminder that Zuni leaders want the youth of their nation to remember and to feel and experience.

Which is why, in March, prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, six young adults, along with cultural advisors from the Zuni Youth Enrichment Program (ZYEP), spent several days hiking, exploring and reconnecting with the Grand Canyon.

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Participants display the flag of the Zuni Tribe at the Bright Angel Campground during their overnight stay in the Grand Canyon in March. (Photos/Zuni Youth Enricment Program)

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Zuni youth and a park ranger share with visitors at the Bright Angel Campground during their overnight stay in the Grand Canyon in March. (Photos/Zuni Youth Enricment Program)

During the trip, participants learned about the cultural significance of the Canyon to the Zuni tribe. They learned about its importance and how it is the place where Zuni ancestors first emerged.

“Many refer to the cultural sites in the Canyon as ruins and abandoned, but the A wi kya know that the spirits of their ancestors are still present,” ZYEP shared.

“There’s no words to describe the feeling you feel while you’re down there — knowing that’s where we all came from and that’s where it all started,” said Tiana, a participant with the group.

The trip lasted three days, with an overnight stay at Bright Angel Campground at the bottom of the Canyon.

“I think it challenged every single person’s physical, emotional, mental, spiritual health,” said Andrea Pepin, ZYEP program manager.

After the trip, Pepin said almost everyone has continued to hike and explore their Zuni homeland.

“(They are) really staying connected to their land and their roots, which I think is really amazing,” she said. “It encourages them to really stay active and explore and hike the places they are from.”

Pepin said many Zuni people have thanked ZYEP for taking the youth to the Canyon and allowing them to have that experience.

“There’s a lot of people who don’t have the opportunity to go there,” she said. “The young people we (took) there don’t realize they can get into the Grand Canyon for free — because that is their birth place and right to be able to do that.”

She said a strong bond was formed during the trip and participants continue to share memories about their experience.

“We have a little text group chat and occasionally, some of them will reminisce about the trip,” she said.

After the trip, participants were interviewed and asked to share their impressions.

“This trip really helped with my mental health a lot. I was able to talk about some things I never really could talk about and I got really close with a lot of the people on the trip,” one participant said.

One highlight of the trip was being able to share about Zuni culture and the tribe’s connection to the Canyon with park rangers and visitors.

“She (the park ranger) asked our group if they wanted to do a presentation on the relevance of the Grand Canyon to the Zuni people,” Pepin said. “All the pieces fell into where they were supposed to as the trip went on.”

Because of the transformative experience the trip had on participants, Pepin said ZYEP would like to make a visit to the Canyon an annual or bi-annual activity.

“Many of them described it as life changing,” she said. “It was really grounding for them — something that they will never forget.”

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