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'Ethnic village' is taking shape

The hope is that 2002 will change everything in Salt Lake City; that the Olympic Games will be a catalyst that reveals Utah's richness not only to the world — but to its own.

"I am so looking forward to the day when people stop saying there's no culture in Salt Lake City," said Katherine St. John, a member of the Eastern Arts music and dance group. The Olympics, she said, are a great reason for Salt Lakers to simply venture outside their own cultural spheres.

This week, dozens of people from local cultural groups gathered at a City Hall forum, seeking to form a picture of what the capital will feel, look, sound and taste like during and after the Games. And while one organization known as NAPAH — standing for Native Americans, Asian Americans, Pacific Islanders, African Americans and Hispanics — said it's planning a downtown "ethnic village," others voiced their dismay at being excluded thus far from the city's Olympic preparations.

John Sittner, Salt Lake City's Olympic planning director, described the city's vision for downtown during the Games: "We're planning to have an international snow sculpture competition on Washington Square . . . food vending . . . two or three large stages here and at Pioneer Park . . . and at least 10 to 15 smaller stages."

Numerous 45-minute performances can unfold on those venues, plus Main Street and 300 South will be given over to street festivals featuring local groups. "I'm committed and the mayor is committed to there being vast representation," Sittner said, "and I've asked the City Council to approve some money, $20,000 to $25,000, that we hope to spread among groups so they can have some kind of expression" in the midst of the Olympic revelry.

Council approval of Sittner's request is months away, and it's a relatively paltry sum in any event. It doesn't look as though cultural groups will either receive or generate substantial revenue for their Games-time activities. But many members of those groups envision an intangible benefit — for themselves and for their untapped local audiences.

"We're looking for opportunities to work together, to reach out to other cultural groups," said Sister Maryam Muhammad, a member of NAPAH. Muhammad is also a singer and storyteller with the Royal Heritage Ensemble, which is giving a multicultural folk concert at 7:30 p.m. tonight at the South Valley Unitarian Universalist Society, 6876 S. Highland Drive in Salt Lake City.

But some smaller organizations have yet to acquaint themselves with NAPAH and expressed concern that they might be left behind as planning progresses through the next 10 months.

Muhammad's usually soft voice rises a little when she hears this. "This ethnic village will include everybody," she said. "We're not trying to be territorial," and NAPAH is not exclusive to those groups that fit under its initials. "We're not black or white. We're human."

Still, Sittner is cautious about selecting only NAPAH to represent the Salt Lake cultural scene. "We don't want to say, 'Here are the keys to City Hall' to one group," he said, adding that city property will primarily be available to groups wanting to "share culture," but "opportunities to sell culture on public property will be fairly limited."

"Some of us feel like we've been exiled" already by the Salt Lake Organizing Committee, said John Renteria, director of the Utah Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. SLOC put together the Cultural Olympiad of music, dance, visual art, literary and even rodeo events without inviting members of the Hispanic community, he said.

Mario Platero, a Navajo and Salt Lake resident, added that American Indians in Utah have gone largely excluded from the Cultural Olympiad's "Discover Navajo" exhibition. Many other tribespeople constitute Utah's native cultures, Platero said. As the 2000 Summer Games in Sydney highlighted aboriginal cultures, the Salt Lake Olympics can celebrate Ute, Goshute, Shoshoni, Paiute and other smaller tribes. "I'm hoping we can work together," he said, adding that there's more to Goshute tribal life than the prospect of nuclear waste being stored on the Skull Valley reservation.

Sittner urged all local groups, NAPAH and otherwise, to stay in touch with him in the coming months. Perhaps local churches have activities they want to publicize; they can also cooperate with groups needing indoor performance space. The city will compile a calendar of events that both locals and visitors can use when looking for activities that don't require an Olympic ticket. "Call, write or click" as soon as possible, he said. Sittner's phone number is 535-7733; his e-mail: john.sittner@ci.slc.ut.us">john.sittner@ci.slc.ut.us.

He added that he's incorporating the input from this week's meeting into an umbrella proposal, a plan that will enable groups to participate in a community-based Olympic cultural festival. He'll send that proposal in a letter to group leaders by mid-April.

"We want to have an area master calendar that lives beyond the Olympics," once the 2002 commotion has raised awareness about local culture, Sittner said. "The Olympics aren't our endpoint. They're an opportunity for the city. The goal is that they benefit us as a community."


E-mail: durbani@desnews.com