Student embraces Native American heritage
By Mike Kilen
GCU News Bureau
Randel Curran didn’t know much about his heritage as a youngster growing up in California. But when his maternal grandmother moved back to her Arizona roots and the rest of the family followed, he quickly learned.
“It was really eye-opening, going from a concrete jungle with sidewalks to dirt roads. I went from city to desert,” he said of moving back in middle school to the Gila River Indian Community south of Phoenix.
There his grandmother urged him to learn the language of the Akimel O’odham tribe. He still remembers the first word she tried to teach him — tabai, or roadrunner.
“Sadly, my grandmother passed away in 2014. After she passed, I challenged myself to learn more about the culture,” he said. “I’m pretty sure she would be happy with me.”
Curran is president of the Native American Student Union at Grand Canyon University, which this week celebrates Native American Heritage Month with a series of events, including a tabling today at The Grove until 1 p.m., evening talks held virtually tonight and Wednesday featuring Ginger Martin, and Thursday’s Art Walk, where Curran will display a piece of his artwork.
It’s the first year of the event for GCU’s Multicultural, Diversity and Inclusion Office.
“This year it has been great working with the new club leadership, and we are looking forward to highlight the contribution natives have made to America as well as celebrate and spread awareness to their heritage here on campus,” said Donald Glenn, Director of the Multicultural, Diversity and Inclusion Office.
Curran wants other students to hear the story of Native Americans, or to learn about their own heritage — something they may have ignored, like he once did.
Curran was a sophomore in high school when he heard a tribal historian’s lecture, promoting the importance of identifying with his culture “to know who you are.”
“What stuck out to me is that Native Americans used to be classified as fish and game. We weren’t people, we were animals. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg – Trails of Tears and so much hardship all the way through the 1950s and even today.
“I found myself really wanting to educate others about the way it was. You don’t have to be hateful for it, but this is what happened, and these are the facts.”
He became the leader of the tribal youth council in high school and at GCU joined the Native American Student Union.
Although GCU has a long history of helping Native American students succeed, maintaining a relationship with many of the 22 Native American communities in Arizona and others in the U.S., Curran often saw that other students held stereotypes of only Navajo or Apache tribes often depicted in movies.
“Also, we don’t live in teepees,” he said.
One of the biggest challenges is keeping the native language alive. While his grandmother worked hard at it, for generations the population was assimilated into the larger culture and unable to practice their traditions or language, he said.
As a leader in high school, he created a board game to learn the language with squares for words, while using his skills as a graphic designer, his major at GCU. His goal is to create that game for the many tribes represented by students at GCU.
His interest in his heritage also has led to another academic area he is considering as a minor – environmental science.
“In my community, we believe everything has life and we are all connected,” he said. “I started thinking about the environment, about the impact of greenhouse gases and other things that hurt the Earth.”
He doesn’t use plastic water bottles and tries to limit how often he washes his clothes to save water. He picks up trash whenever he can and joins his community on regular bimonthly cleanups.
“I try to encourage my friends to be green,” he said. “It bothers me because it’s so simple to help the environment.”
He hopes to use his artistic skills to spread his message, to share who he is and where he comes from, a line of O’odham that his grandmother was so proud of.
His Art Walk piece to be displayed on Thursday is a simple square, half orange and half white, because he is half white. He lives in the middle of those two colors.
“As a native person we have to find the balance, that line between the culture and larger society,” he said. “I have to find that line and that line is where I have to walk.”
Grand Canyon University senior writer Mike Kilen can be reached at [email protected] or at 602-639-6764.
EVENTS THIS WEEK: 12-1 p.m. tabling outside The Grove (today), Diamondback (Tuesday) and Student Union (Thursday); guest speaker Ginger Martin at 6 p.m. today and Wednesday via Zoom and in the Theology Building, Room 100; Art Walk 12-5:30 p.m. Thursday on the Promenade outside the Student Union.