Culture Fest weaves in students' diverse stories

The Chi’chino O’odham Dance Group performs at the Diversity and Inclusion Department’s Culture Fest on Thursday in GCU Arena.

Story by Lana Sweeten-Shults
Photos by Ralph Freso
GCU News Bureau

Kris Dosela weaves a story about the O’odham basket dance.

One of the dances the group shared was a traditional basket dance.

It is traditionally performed in the springtime by girls who have come of age and are ready to be married, he said.

They would weave baskets in secret, and the saying is that a basket with a tight weave means that the girl who made it would keep a good home.

With that, the rhythmic timing of the rattles and chantlike singing of the vocalists began as the women of the Chi’chino O’odham Dance Group, baskets in hand, stepped across the Grand Canyon University Arena stage Thursday evening for Culture Fest.

Students shared their culture at almost 30 booths.

“It’s about the importance of the basket and how it sets the course for that young woman’s life,” said Dosela, who balances one foot in the ancient traditions of the O’odham tribe and the other in the bright, shiny modern world of information technology, which he studied online as a GCU IT student.

He chants next to dancers dressed in breechcloth-like wraps bordered by black, wavelike patterns. They carry bows and arrows for another dance native to the O’odham, a Native American Sonoran Desert people once known as the Papago.  

“It isn’t a war dance. It is a cleansing,” Dosela said of the dance, meant to cleanse the stage.

The campus’ Native American Student Union invited the group to Culture Fest, organized annually by the Department of Diversity and Inclusion.

One of the last stops was the Mexico booth.

While the campus-unifying event in 2021 beckoned to students from Grove Lawn, this year it occupied the grand expanse of GCU Arena. Students grabbed a passport book at the “Cruising Through the Jungle”-themed event entrance. They then used the passport book to collect stamps at various “ports of call,” or tables, manned by students representing different nations.

Attendees who collected 15 stamps received a tote bag, and those who made it through the maze of tables found themselves in an open space near the stage, where they could watch performers — everyone from rappers to guitarists, singers and dancers. They also could partake of international foods, such as empanadas, pot stickers, chocolate-filled cannoli and caprese bruschetta.

Almost 30 countries were represented at Culture Fest booths, said senior government major Day Kim, a student coordinator with the Diversity and Inclusion Department’s Multicultural Office. She also is a liaison for the department’s infinity groups, which are minority groups the Multicultural Office works with and supports, helping them “create everlasting connections to the institution and each other,” said Multicultural Office specialist Grace Kuehne.

“Our department is definitely growing little by little,” said Kim, as are its events.

Both of the department’s Project L icebreakers were packed this year, as was the recent masquerade ball. It now has 15 student leaders. “More workers, more ideas and more events,” she said.

Students stop for jungle-adventure-themed pictures at the photo area.

“We’re getting more known across campus,” added Maurice Martinez Crespo, a freshman economics/finance major and also a Multicultural Office student coordinator and infinity groups liaison.

One of the “countries” students could visit was Uganda, where sophomore psychology major/behavioral health minor Mark Sserunjogi introduced students to some of the artworks of his home country, including weaved baskets. “We are an artistically engaged country, as you can see,” he tells visitors to his table.

He also shares a little about the popular foods of Uganda, such as matoke (a type of cooking banana), luwombo (a dish cooked in banana leaves), roasted peanuts and ugali (a stiff maize flour porridge).

He moved to the United States three years ago and hasn’t met many other students here from Uganda, though his cousin and a friend of his cousin attend GCU. “Somehow, we all ended up at GCU,” said Sserunjogi, who also serves as a Buddy for the L.O.P.E.S. Academy at the Cardon Center, the University's college-experience program for adults with mild intellectual or developmental disabilities.

Bukhari King takes to the mic.

“We take a lot of pride in our tribe and culture,” said Sserunjogi, who wanted to pass on that message to his fellow Culture Fest attendees.

Farther down the passageway, sophomore advertising and graphic design major Nem Cing manned the Myanmar table.

“Our culture, it’s different and very unique,” she said of her home country, bordered by China, Thailand, Laos and Bangladesh in Southeast Asia. “Myanmar is not really well known.”

It’s why when friends invited her to Culture Fest, she was eager to attend and educate GCU’s students about that part of the globe.

“It’s a wonderful opportunity to share your culture,” Cing said.

Pre-med student Rachel Mitai greets visitors at the Samoa booth.

Pre-med student Rachael Mitai loves Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson as much as anyone. But there’s more to her country of Samoa than the wrestler/actor.

“They ask about Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson all the time,” she said with a laugh.

The Samoa table was decorated with the word “talofa,” which means “greetings.”

Fashioning a Samoan-style greeting or two is something she aims to do when the Asian American and Pacific Islander Association ramps up.

There are a “big handful” of Samoan students at GCU, Mitai said, but they never have the time to come together. She hopes to remedy that through the new group, which meets for the first time March 24.

Students enjoyed foods from different countries and cultures, such as bruschetta (pictured), pot stickers and empanadas.

Arriving at GCU was a big shock to her, she said, after coming from Long Beach, California, a city of great diversity. It’s why she wanted to form the Asian American and Pacific Islander Association. Just like at Culture Fest, the organization wants to “show a representation of our culture.”

Hui Aloha member Arin Aihara, who played guitar and sang “Hawaiian Lullaby” and “Over the Rainbow” on the Arena stage, knows a little something about culture shock. He got a dose of it after arriving at GCU from Maui.

But then he joined Hui Aloha, one of the infinity groups in the Multicultural Office.

A student at the Mexico booth dons flower headgear.

After Culture Fest, Aihara and other members of Hui Aloha will continue to share the Hawaiian culture at the annual luau from 5-7 p.m. April 7 on the Quad.

An O’odham basket dance might not be on deck, but a hula just might be.

“Finding a community in a foreign place has been reassuring. It’s nice to have a second family here,” Aihara said of connecting with other students from Hawaii.

That shared culture means maintaining that feeling of home right here at GCU, where students continue to weave their story.

GCU senior writer Lana Sweeten-Shults can be reached at [email protected] or at 602-639-7901.

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