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Connecting With the Land is Connecting With Culture

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Zuni Youth Enrichment Project
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Commentary: As Indigenous people, our relationship to the land is one that is held sacred. Not only because of everything the land offers us to sustain life, but because land is an integral part to maintain and pass on ancestral knowledge, wellness, and our culture.

Today, there are challenges that stem from colonization, like displacement of tribal communities and systemic barriers that prevent our people from experiencing the land around us like our ancestors did. But that does not lessen the significant connection and responsibility we have to our Mother Earth. Our ancestors were artists, scientists, teachers, care-takers, engineers and so much more. And through it all, they figured out how to connect to our lands despite colonization.

I remember growing up and being excited about camping, but my parents needed to work and the time needed to organize and go on a camping trip was sometimes not a possibility. Thanks to the Zuni Youth Enrichment Program I had access to experiences that contributed to my holistic health, like getting outside. This is where I got to experience connecting with our lands, surrounded by positive people who came from my community and who cared about us and our culture. We went on many memorable trips to get to know our Mother Earth. Not just as recreational activities, but as ways to connect with our history and our identity. After all those years, I came back to work for ZYEP because I want to ensure the significant experiences I got are available to our youth today and for many generations to come. 

At ZYEP, we believe in the strength and brilliance of the Zuni people. We believe that Zuni people — their knowledge and life-ways — have transformative power to help Zuni youth grow into strong and healthy adults thus promoting healthy communities in a systematic manner.

One of the ways we nurture thriving youth in our communities is through the implementation of outdoor activity programs like backpacking, hiking, canoeing, National Park visits, and much more– many of which are funded by the Outdoor Equity Fund. These programs are ways to help them connect with who they are, where they come from, and where they see themselves going within the context of their tribal community and families. 

Our programs have led to our youth seeking careers in Forest Service and conservation efforts, all while learning how to access outdoor recreation, but a more important aspect of our activities is integrating culturally relevant learning. We have cultural advisors who pass on the knowledge about the site we are visiting and youth engage in traditional prayer, offerings to our ancestors, and understand how mental health and spiritual health are integral to overall wellness.

We are grateful for the work that has gone into making OEF possible for us and many other communities across New Mexico with the latest allocation of $10M for the Outdoor Recreation Division, which provides $3M for OEF. We invite you to join us in supporting more funding initiatives that will expand access to the outdoors to more New Mexican youth to build the next generation of stewards to our air, land, and water.

Tahlia Natachu is the Director of Development for Zuni Youth Enrichment Project.