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  From Tea to Weddings: Rituals Around the Globe
  More Northern Exposure: UW Joins UArctic

 

From Tea to Weddings: Rituals Around the Globe

Just days after finishing their school year, dozens of high school teachers filed into the UW’s HUB Ballroom. As they knelt at a silver basin, scented rose water was poured over their hands. Then they removed their shoes and sat on Oriental rugs spread across the floor, ready to drink steaming cups of thick, sweet tea, heavily scented with spices.

  Child looking at bones
 
Paula Holmes-Eber discusses North African and Middle Eastern tea service as ritual during the 2008 Summer Seminar for Educators. Photo by Keith Snodgrass.

The spacious ballroom couldn’t duplicate the intimate setting of a North African or Middle Eastern tea service, but the gathering—with an anthropologist on hand to explain tea rituals and etiquette—did provide a window into another culture.

Serving tea to guests was one of ten rituals from around the globe highlighted in “Life Cycle Rituals and Traditions across Cultures,” the 2008 Summer Seminar for Educators offered by the Jackson School of International Studies (JSIS).

“We’ve been offering these seminars annually since the mid-1990s,” says Felicia Hecker, associate director of the JSIS’s Middle East Center, who was this year’s organizer. “The goal is to reenergize teachers—spark their desire to learn and get excited about new material.”

The Jackson School has eight regional centers funded by the U.S. Department of Education, and each is represented in the annual seminar. Past themes have included world religions, international literature, migration, trade routes, and storytelling and oral traditions.

The greatest challenge, says Hecker, is coming up with a theme that translates across regions. “I think about topics I’m interested in, that are broad enough for all regions to contribute,” she says. “Then I choose one I believe won’t bore everybody. This year, I thought it would be interesting to look at how ritual binds communities and how we identify ourselves through subtle ritual.”

  Child looking at bones
 
Participants in the Summer Seminar for Educators hold up a chuppa during a session on the Jewish wedding ceremony. Photo by Gretchen Ludwig.

The rituals explored in the two-day seminar included everything from the Day of the Dead in Mexico to Makah whaling traditions. Most presenters were UW faculty. In planning the seminar, Hecker welcomed opportunities for teachers to experience rituals rather than simply hear them described. Participants held up a chuppa used in the Jewish wedding ceremony, enjoyed a live performance of traditional xylophone music from Ghana, and—of course—sipped tea on a carpeted floor.

To create the right ambience for the latter, JSIS staff borrowed dozens of rugs from a local collector. They struggled to transport them to the HUB—facing an elevator malfunction at the worst possible moment—but Hecker felt the rugs were essential to create the setting in which tea is experienced in a traditional Middle Eastern home.

That detail, along with the removal of shoes and washing of hands, might not even be recognized as rituals to those closest to them. “You start to realize that some of the most minor things we do are rituals,” says Hecker. “These are the sorts of details that define us and our place in society. But often we don’t see them until we step out and study other cultures.”

 

More Northern Exposure

Geographically, Washington is nowhere near the Arctic. But earlier this year the University of Washington became a member of the University of the Arctic—just the second institution (along with Dartmouth College) below the 49th parallel to do so.

Don’t pack your bags for a visit to the far north just yet. The University of the Arctic (UArctic) has no physical campus. Rather, it is a network of institutions across the circumpolar north with shared interests.

Those interests range from global warming to Inuit self-government to the natural resources of the Arctic, says Nadine Fabbi, associate director of the UW Canadian Studies Center in the Jackson School of International Studies, who led the effort to have the UW join UArctic.

Fabbi points out that climate change—and concern that polar ice is melting—has made the Arctic a region of growing interest. “As polar ice melts, natural resources like oil, gas, and minerals may become more accessible,” says Fabbi, “and the Northwest Passage may open to shipping for the first time. This raises many political and economic issues.”

Where does the UW fit in? Fabbi has already identified nearly 40 faculty pursuing research with a circumpolar connection. These include anthropologists studying human adaptations to Arctic environments; scientists at the UW’s Polar Science Center looking at sea ice motion and thickness; and business faculty studying Alaskan economics.

In Fabbi’s own program, Canadian Studies, the Arctic is an ongoing focus. “Canada is the second largest Arctic nation in the world,” explains Fabbi. “Forty percent of Canada’s land is considered far north.”

The University of the Arctic is a fairly new institution, established in 1998 as an offshoot of the Arctic Council, which brought together the eight Arctic nations
—Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden, and the U.S.—
to address circumpolar policy.

“The group agreed that they ought to form a University that would focus on enhanced education for and about the circumpolar world,” says Fabbi.

Classes are offered online, leading to a degree in circumpolar studies. Fabbi hopes that UW faculty may one day develop online courses for UArctic, and that UW students can pursue a circumpolar minor to complement their other UW studies.

“The online courses offer a unique experience,” says Fabbi. “You have classes where students are dialoguing with Russians, Canada’s Inuit, and students from Greenland. I’m hopeful that our membership in UArctic will lead to some innovative new programs at the UW.”

Return to Table of Contents, Autumn 2008