by Indra Ekmanis
In a ghoulish mash-up of American Halloween and Baltic St. Martin’s Eve (or Martinmas) traditions, supporters of the UW Baltic Studies program flock to the Latvian Community Center in vibrant costumes each October. Celebrating the end of the traditional harvest season and the enduring success of the Baltic Studies Program, community members from the littlest school children to the wisest grandparents dress to impress at the cross-Baltic community’s biggest annual party.
A high-spirited affair, with eating, mingling and dancing, St. Martin’s Eve is also an important source of support for the Baltic Studies Program. Housed within the Department of Scandinavian Studies at UW, the program is nearly two decades old. All three Baltic languages appeared in the UW course catalog for the first time in the autumn quarter of 1994 with the support of the REECAS Center, and UW is the only American university to regularly offer all three Baltic languages. Since then, the Baltic Studies Program has flourished, attracting prominent academics from the region to the University, as well as multiple presidents of the Baltic countries. On his September work visit to the US, Latvian President Andris Bērziņš toured UW campus and the Baltic books collection at Suzzalo Library, which is the largest of its kind in the country.
Amanda Swain, a former REECAS student and recent PhD in history, does not have Baltic heritage, but studied Lithuania throughout her time at UW. “The UW Baltic Studies program is educating a new generation of Americans who will understand the history, politics, economics, culture and environment of these countries and will build stronger relationships between these three countries and the US,” she says.
The program, together with Baltic governments and universities host visiting lecturers, who take on language instruction and often contribute culture courses to the UW course catalog. Initially begun with seed funding from Title VI, it has grown with backing from the Baltic community and governments. To ensure alternate sources of revenue, the Endowed Fund for Baltic Studies at UW was started in 1996. More than $50,000 was initially contributed by Baltic communities. Over the past two decades, over $2.3 million has been raised to fund the program. A $3 million goal for the endowment has been set to secure a permanent faculty position for the program. Associate Professor Guntis Šmidchens has been at the forefront of the program since its inception in the mid-1990s. As head of the program, he has been instrumental in establishing serious scholarship relating to the Baltic States at UW.
“Guntis’ fascination and love for Baltic studies within the Scandinavian studies department has inspired me to keep Baltic studies as part of my research,” says Liina-Ly Roos-Beatty, a Scandinavian Studies graduate student and Estonian language instructor. “His work shows that it is possible to specialize in Baltic Studies in the US, and that the results can be very rewarding.”
Like the program, the roots of St. Martin’s Eve festivities in Seattle date back to the mid-1990s. In addition to the important financial support the event holds for the University, it is one of few annual hubs for cross-cultural and cross-Baltic community building. Irena Blekys, administrator for the Association of Baltic Studies and instructor at Seattle’s Lithuanian Saturday school, has been volunteering for St. Martin’s since its inception. “I think it’s very important to bring our communities together, especially families,” she says. “I have met quite a few now who have taken classes or courses [at UW] and come back with their spouses and children or friends. It keeps our traditions alive and gives us a chance to party with our fellow Balts and most importantly find a permanent spot for this program at the University.”
Swain says that the growth of the event demonstrates the need for a dedicated program at UW. “Over the last twenty years, the local Baltic communities and the countries they represent have experienced dramatic changes,” she says. “New immigrants from Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania have joined second and third generation Baltic-Americans at the annual dinner and auction, evidence of the economic and political transformations that have taken place in their home countries.”
Admission includes dancing and a dinner in the style of the Baltic countryside (read: meat, potatoes and sauerkraut), and booths will be selling hard-to-come-by Baltic beers, baked goods and imported treats. Blekys describes the affair as “organized chaos.” “It never is the same event,” she says. “There’s always some new feature.”
The festive atmosphere is often heightened by performances from Seattle’s Baltic arts groups. This year Latvian folk dance ensemble Trejdeksnitis and a Lithuanian band will lead off the entertainment.
“It is these small events each year that is the backbone of our work to support this unique program,” Blekys says. “We have all been grateful also to those who have pledged money over many years and for our Baltic foundations that have also given substantial gifts.”
St. Martin’s Eve event information:
When: Saturday, Oct. 26, 2013, 6 p.m.
Where: Seattle Latvian Community Center, 11710 3rd Ave NE, Seattle
Admission: Adults $25 | Students $15 | Free for children 10 and under
Admission includes dinner
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