The Zuni Youth Enrichment Program (ZYEP) began in part when Dr. Faber, a pediatrician who came to Zuni from Boston, would ask his young patients what they were doing for the summer, and the response was most often “nothing.” Over the past six years ZYEP has developed a series of programs, with the goal of promoting “the development of healthy lifestyles and self-esteem among Zuni kids by providing them with opportunities to participate in empowering and enriching activities that will encourage them to grow into strong and healthy adults who are connected with Zuni traditions.” On the hot and windy day we arrived in Zuni, youth were busy with games on the playground, and watering the small plants in the raised bed gardens.
Zuni Pueblo is home to about 10,000 people and is located about 35 miles south of Gallup NM. The reservation, which is a little over 400,000 acres, rests on the very western border of NM. The Zuni people have farmed the Zuni River Valley and many of its tributaries for thousands of years, raising primarily corn, squash, beans, and other vegetables. Most people today live in Zuni Pueblo, although past generations resided in smaller farming villages at Pescado, Nutria, and Ojo Caliente, especially during the planting season.
The Zuni were first contacted by the Spanish in 1540 when Coronado and his men arrived looking for the Seven Cities of Cibola. In 1680, Zuni took part in the Pueblo Revolt, developing a fortress on top of Dowa Yalanne mesa where they planted corn and lived for 12 years defending their village from the Spanish army. Dowa Yalanne, a towering mesa of red and white striated rock, is visible from nearly every part of the current community, and stands as a symbol and reminder of power and survival.
While Zuni survived for thousands of years on farming, few people farm today. A changing relationship with water contributed to this decline in farming. Previous generations were dry-land farmers, using only the rain and some spring-fed irrigation. In the early 1900’s the US government built reservoirs and told the Zuni to use them to irrigate their fields. These reservoirs filled with silt, causing farmers at that time to feel that there was no farming without water. Modern conveniences, like the ability to shop at grocery stores, combined with water restrictions, has also led to a decrease in farming for some families.
But a decrease in farming has also coincided with health problems. More than ½ of Zuni children are now overweight or obese, and diabetes rates at Zuni are three times the national average. In developing summer and after school programs for Zuni youth, it was important to coordinators like Zowie Banteah-Yuselew that programming include components that would help youth address these issues. ZYEP began as a summer program with 20 children, and now includes a number of additional projects that impact hundreds.
When we arrived in June, ZYEP was in the middle of their 6th summer program, which can accommodate 65 kids, although 100 signed up this year. Fifteen Zuni teenagers serve as the camp counselors, which provide them the opportunity to develop their leadership skills. Students spend the day exploring the outdoors on field trips, planting and tending the camp garden, playing sports, and learning traditional arts like pottery and dance. The garden consists of 15 raised beds at the Twin Buttes High School campus, contained staples like corn, tomatoes, melons, squash. Zowie described to us that one of the goals was to include cultural values in the garden, like greeting the plants in the Zuni language and singing to them. Pre and post evaluations done with past years’ campers show decreased weight, improved levels of home physical activity, and decreased soda consumption.
Other garden projects coordinated by ZYEP include school gardens at Dowa Yalanee Elementary School (in its fifth year) and A:Shiwi Elementary school (in its second year), as well as a new garden at the Head Start. The tribal Natural Resources department built the garden boxes and brought in the soil, and the teachers have incorporated them into their science classes. ZYEP also started a garden outside of the Zuni IHS hospital, which was tended by the hospital staff. The garden has even encouraged some patients to go home and plant one of their own.
During the school year, ZYEP programs include the DY Mesa after school program, which involves middle school students in 2 hours of daily after school programming, in addition to weekend and summer trips and service projects. The program includes 7 components designed to help youth make healthy choices: education (homework help), self expression (Zuni pottery, painting, photography), lifetime individual sports (biking, rock climbing, running), jobs club (participants open a bank account, earn a stipend and take part in entrepreneurial activities), family life and sexual education, mental health group, and medical/dental (helping the youth establish a relationship with a medical provider). In the fall, DY Mesa youth brings produce from the gardens planted by the summer program to soccer games, and hands out this fresh food along with nutritional information to players and parents. Zowie expressed how some parents are hesitant to take produce directly from the gardens that they haven’t helped to plant or maintain, but they were happy to accept it from the youth.
ZYEP hosts soccer, basketball, and baseball leagues in an effort to involve youth in physical activity. ZYEP has also worked with tribal programs to mark popular fitness trails, which has led more people to use them, and through the afters chool program they coordinated a youth obesity awareness walk/hike. The youth created the hiking trail, marked it, designed the t-shirts, and publicized the events, which brought out 86 people on a Sunday morning.
Across town, the A:shiwi A:wan Museum Heritage Center is also working on encouraging more people to grow food, through the community garden they have supported for several years. The garden is seen as an extension of the museum, that people can walk past and observe and learn from. Planted inside the waffles are Zuni staples like corn, chilies, onions, cilantro, beans, and tomatoes. The gardens are no-till and tended entirely by hand without machinery. Ultimately the museum hopes to see the community garden grow into a learning space, where new emerging gardeners could interact with older gardeners to learn about Zuni food culture.