A Cultural Park for the Health of the Kids

Joseph Claunch of the Zuni Youth Enrichment Project describes how Zuni artists led the development of Ho’n A:wan Community Park.
Interview by Karen Olson

Ho’n A:wan Community Park emphasizes sports, culture, and arts. Pictured: Muralist Keith Adaki wanted to find a way for all the kids to participate in a large-scale mural. He asked them, “What does it mean to be Zuni to you?” The kids painted their ideas and designs as petroglyphs included in this 4’ by 8’ mural. Among other art projects not pictured, potter Noreen Simplicio worked with all 700 kids at the local elementary school to create a mural representing Zuni migration from the Grand Canyon to its current location. Each child made a pottery shard and painted a traditional Zuni design on it.
Photo courtesy Shiwisun Productions.

Joseph Claunch, a member of the Puyallup Tribe in Tacoma, Washington, was 23 years old when he met some Zuni kids at a football camp at the University of New Mexico. He recognized himself in them. “Meeting those kids really helped plant the seeds to give back to tribal communities and to work directly with kids to provide them opportunities to have a better life.”

So Claunch moved to Zuni, a Pueblo nation in New Mexico, in 2010 to become a teacher and coach. He soon recognized there were challenges he wasn’t helping his students to overcome. So he left in 2012 to get his PhD in sport and exercise psychology with a focus on youth development and motivation. He returned to Zuni in 2016 as co-director of the Zuni Youth Enrichment Project (ZYEP) with its founder, pediatrician Tom Faber, MD. ZYEP envisions a Zuni community where every child is able to reach his or her full potential and provides activities, primarily through sports leagues, summer camps, and mentorship, to build self-esteem. The organization was just beginning to develop a concept for a park that expands the definition of health.

“ZYEP’s vision for that park was to work with local artists to design a space that would promote cultural affirmation, the cultural transfer of knowledge, and inspiration and healing through the arts,” says Claunch. The organization received an ArtPlace Community Development Investment grant for the project.

“Zuni is a place where 80 percent of the adults self-identify as artists and many earn an income that way. It’s in every respect an artisan community,” he says. The project’s committee of artist became leaders throughout the development of the park. They include Jeff Shetima (carver), Carlton Jamon (silversmith), Edward Lewis (painter), Daryl Shack (carver), Noreen Simplicio (potter), Eldrick Seoutewa (silversmith), and April Unkestine (potter). “They have helped us design and create a park space that is integrating Zuni art into every aspect of the landscape.”

The Ho’n A:wan Community Park opened on September 29, 2018. Claunch shared with us how a youth development organization and community artists came together to create a place where kids can become healthier and stronger physically, spiritually, and psychologically.

What were the beginnings of the Ho’n A:wan Community Park?

Zuni represents one of the most intact language and cultural systems, and longest continually inhabited villages, in North America. And so the passing along of traditions, of Zuni culture, of Zuni religious practices, is of the highest priority for local families. ZYEP recognizes that and has really aligned its mission and programs to reflect that. So building a park space that integrates traditional Zuni art in the landscape, and the type of art that reflects Zuni identity and history, makes sense.

When we had a meeting with local artists, about 15 showed up. The way they talked about caring for the youth and about what the youth needed—it was so aligned with our mission that bells and lights were going off for me. They could take youth development to a deeper level because they had grown up in Zuni. They were culture bearers, they were religious leaders, and they were artists. They had a different language and way of approaching youth development that was culturally responsive, with a deep sense of what local kids need.

The artists had these amazing ideas for how to build the space in a way that’s going to make families want to be there and engage in healthy activities, while also learning about Zuni history, gaining a deeper sense of who they are as Zuni people, of where they come from.

Could you describe the park?

The park includes a community center that has murals on the exterior walls and inside the building walls, that has Zuni art polished into the floor. It is a space where master artists are able to teach their craft to generations of younger Zuni students. The park also features a walking trail, a full-size athletic turf field, a traditional community garden, and a basketball court.

What is the significance of the park’s location?

The park is in a neighborhood in the heart of Zuni’s main village next to really significant areas where the most important religious events happen. So we’ve designed the space with colors and features that would really blend in with the frequency of Zuni and be a cultural asset instead of a threat to those areas. The Zuni artists have advised us in how to do that every step of the way. An example would be instead of doing a chain-link fence around the perimeter to secure the space, we do coyote fencing made of local wood that the community has been using for thousands of years for fencing.

Zuni artists are world renowned for their skill and abilities. But when you come into the Zuni community you don’t see public art. It’s not visible. We hope this park space will help bring visibility to the brilliance of Zuni artists and inspire the next generations to carry on this excellence in the arts.

How does the park contribute to health of the community?

One of the religious leaders in the Zuni community expressed to us that we want our kids to be physically strong and active, but it’s really important that they are psychologically strong and spiritually strong. He felt that art being present in a space where kids are playing would give them a better understanding of who they are, where they come from, and the strength of their community. It would help in their development.

This is something our organization is continuing to evolve. We’re ten years old. At first it was about making sure our kids were physically active and had something positive to do. As we grow and as we learn about community needs from community members, we recognize that many of the health challenges in the community are related to successive generations of trauma across the community.

In all of our own research on best practices, the key to building resiliency for somebody who has experienced trauma is to have a competent and caring adult in the picture. And so we need to include the family unit as a whole in our activities. Our model has evolved to try to create spaces and programs that will build resiliency as an antidote to trauma and also promote healing for youth and their families.

We feel like this park space embodies that resiliency of the Zuni people and also promotes the sense of healing for Zuni youth and their families. All the local art that’s going into the park is celebrating the spirit of Zuni. Some of the murals depict the Zuni migration story from the Grand Canyon to its current location. Other murals describe Zuni’s clan system, which is elaborate and involves 16 different animals. These artistic images can teach and inspire without saying a word.

What have you learned while creating the park?

I think the biggest thing we’ve learned is how valuable a resource artists can be in community development and, in our case, youth development. Artists are not just artists—they belong to families. They wear many different hats. Bringing artists to the table and unleashing their creativity in youth development and in community development has been so valuable for us. It’s ensured that we’re doing community development in a culturally responsive way, which I think should be the goal of all community development projects.

The miracle of this whole project is that you find community members committed to kids, caring enough to follow through, and helping to build a space that will provide opportunities for a better future.

Karen Olson is editor in chief of Public Art Review.

Featured in Public Art Review #58.