ISFA News, Volume 10, no. 2 (September, 2004)

Eleventh Bulletin Preview

Articles for the 2004 Bulletin are currently being edited and illustrated. Obviously the volume will not be ready to print and mail by the end of this year, but when it is published next Spring, it will be billed as “a compilation of articles written in 2004”. Anyone who paid membership dues for 2004 will automatically receive a copy.

The showcase article for this year’s Bulletin will present the second of two unpublished string figure collections from the Quebec-Labrador peninsula in Eastern Canada. The second was made in 1924 by anthropologist Frederick W. Waugh among the nomadic Naskapi-Montagnais Indians who inhabit the sparsely populated interior of the Labrador Peninsula as well as the North Shore of the St. Lawrence River. A detailed description of this article, originally intended for the 2003 Bulletin but withheld due to space constraints, appeared in the March 2004 issue of this newsletter.

Also of interest is an article on the string figures of Palau, the westernmost island group in the Federated States of Micronesia (a.k.a. the “Caroline Islands”). The first part of the article, prepared by Axel Reichert, is an English translation of Raymund’s “Die Faden- und Abnehmespiele auf Palau” (The String and Taking-Off Games of Palau), originally published in 1911 as a 21-page article in the Austrian journal Anthropos. Since Raymund failed to include methods for making the figures, Joseph D’Antoni, Mark Sherman, and Tom Storer are examining published collections from adjacent regions in search of identical designs whose methods of manufacture are known. These methods will constitute the second part of the article. Raymund’s collection is significant because it helps us reconstruct string figure diffusion routes: a preliminary comparison with figures from adjacent regions suggests that Palauan figures are related or identical to figures from Melanesia and the other islands of Micronesia rather than figures from China or Japan. Unfortunately, our knowledge of string figures from additional adjacent regions (the Phillipines, Indonesia, and the Northern Marianas) is meager, making it impossible to rule out other routes of diffusion.

In “String Games of the Navajo: Part 3” Will Wirt and Mark Sherman will present figures collected on their third joint-visit to the reservation in January of 2002. During their visit the authors focused their attention on regions not visited previously: Tuba City, located on the western edge of the reservation; Navajo Mountain, a remote community located on the northern edge, and the Navajo reservation at Ramah, a separate, sparsely populated reservation located south of the main reservation. Initial inquiries were also made among the Zuñi Indians, who live west of Ramah, and the Hopi Indians, who live in the center of the Navajo reservation. In addition to some new figures gathered on the trip, Part 3 will also include a synonym list that summarizes the titles assigned to previously collected figures as well as notes on their geographical distribution within the reservation.

In the past two issues of our Bulletin, Paulo Escudeiro has documented the Portuguese version of the Cat’s Cradle series, as played by children in the streets of Lisbon. In his first article he presented the actual designs that are made and the order in which they are constructed. In his second article he explained the “rules” currently applied to the game and the strategies associated with “winning” it. In his forthcoming article, the author presents a detailed analysis of the individual string crossings of each design in an effort to better understand how one design is transformed into another. This sort of knowledge provides the player with a “competitive edge”, allowing him to better predict the outcome of each seemingly random “taking off” attempt.

As usual, the Bulletin will conclude with Books Reviews and an entertaining assortment of Letters to the Editor.

New Members

During the past six months the ISFA acquired 10 new members. In addition, one previous member rejoined. We now have 214 members living in 22 countries.

Our new overseas members are: Freddie Gulliver, Holbrook, Ipswich, United Kingdom and Yukari Hosoda, Sapporo, Japan. Our new Canadian members include Gail Rydman, Edmunton, Alberta; and Darwin Duckworth, Angus, Ontario. In the United States we welcome Ken Johnson, Hudson, Wisconsin; Jeanne Larsen, Anchorage, Alaska; Andy Young, Albuquerque, New Mexico; Gary Bodily, North Logan, Utah; and Michael Soulé, Seattle, Washington. Rejoining us is Rita Eisele, Terre Haute, Indiana.

String Figure Angels for 2004

Each year in January we ask members to send us $25 to partially offset our printing and mailing costs (overseas members pay $35). For the balance we rely on the generosity of passionate and/or financially secure members. Although we greatly appreciate every extra dollar that members contribute, we like to acknowledge the generosity of large contributors by dubbing them String Figure Angels. By definition, an angel is anyone who either contributes at least $25 more than the requested amount, purchases a gift membership, or recruits a new member. Archangels are members who contribute $100 or more. For reasons that are not entirely clear, 46 members failed to renew their membership in 2004. This constitutes our largest loss of members ever (20%). As a result, the generosity of our String Figure Angels played an essential role in keeping the ISFA afloat in 2004.

This year we wish to acknowledge the generosity of the following String Figure Angels: David McDaniel, Elizabeth Tilling, John Kean, Avery Burns, John Sigwald, Ruth Stotter, Dean Abel, Michael Dan Colgate, William Garrison, John Peterson, Lois and Earl Stokes, Mike Sloey, James Craddock, John Pinto, Thomas Kennedy, Audrey Small, Julie Hocking, C.J. Hartman, Fred Alcantar, Mayme Strange, Michael Grigsby, Marcia Gaynor, Agnes Tomorrow, Claire Miller, Allen Tans, Catherine Salika, Randy von Smith, Anita Friedman, Belinda Holbrook, Pieter van de Griend, Yukio Shishido, Ian Ferguson, Michael Taylor, Axel Reichert, Hiroshi Noguchi, Ronald Read, Clark Crawford, James Foerch, Camilla Gryski, Frederick Dick, Wyatt Phillips, Paul Power, Deirdre Ni Cheallaigh, and Frank Ferguson.

Our String Figure Archangels for 2004 are: James Murphy, Carey C.K. Smith, Carole Graham, David Eisenberg, David Titus, Lawrence Williams, David Parkinson, Myriam Namolaru, Lori Lachance Murdoch, Paulo Escudeiro, John Burnes, Andrew Devalpine, Joseph D’Antoni, Will and Lillie Wirt, Tom and Karen Storer, and Mark Sherman.

Thanks to the combined efforts of our angels we were able to accommodate the temporary loss of 46 members, whose contributions would have amounted to $1300. We would also like to thank all US members who paid by personal check rather than Paypal or Visa/Mastercard. Although the latter two options are convenient, each incurs a processing fee of 3-5%, which is deducted from our bank deposit. This may not seem like much, but when combined with monthly merchant card fees the total loss amounts to nearly $700 a year — the cost of printing one issue of our Magazine!

Business Meeting in Montreal

In recent issues of our newsletter the feasibility of organizing a second International gathering was discussed (the first ISFA gathering took place 6 years ago in Winnipeg). At the time it seemed logical to select a site and date that would coincide with a larger festival devoted to a related topic: either the centennial of the St. Louis World Exposition (the event at which Caroline Furness Jayne collected string figures for her classic book), or the 4th World Festival of Traditional Games and Sports, to be held in Montreal from July 30th to August 8th, 2004. The latter option seemed particularly attractive since Lothar Walschik and his traveling band of German stringers were scheduled to perform at the festival. Furthermore, participants from nearly 70 countries were expected to attend, thus providing us with a unique opportunity to collect string figures from contemporary indigenous peoples. Unfortunately, no clear plan of action emerged from the discussions, despite the sincere efforts of several enthusiastic volunteers who offered to coordinate the event.

As a compromise, U.S. members of our editorial staff (Will Wirt, Joseph D’Antoni, and Mark Sherman) decided to attend the Games festival in Montreal and use the opportunity to hold an informal business meeting, to which all ISFA members were invited. But soon after booking hotel rooms and purchasing non-refundable airline tickets, a distraught Herr Walschik forwarded the following e-mail message he received from the festival organizing committee:

Date: July 2, 2004
Subject: The 4th World Festival of Traditional Games and Sports, Montreal, August 2004.

Dear participant:
The government of Canada had confirmed in 1999 a contribution equal to that of the Quebec government in order to organize the 4th edition of the World festival of traditional games and sports. In 2001, the Quebec government gave its contribution. Since that day, many approaches have been made to the Canadian government to solve the situation. Unfortunately, after having given half of the expected sum, the government of Canada refuses to pay the second half. Four weeks from the event and with no hope of a payment from the Canadian government, the organizing committee has no other choice than to cancel the event that was to be held in Montreal this summer from July 30th to August 8, 2004. The organizing committee thanks you for your support. There is no doubt that the Games of the World would have been a spectacular event that Montrealers and visitors alike would have remembered for a long time.

Needless to say, everyone was deeply disappointed. Nevertheless, the editors decided to proceed with their plans to meet, share visions of the future, and enjoy a much needed vacation.

Montreal, being a very old and very cosmopolitan city, provided a perfect backdrop for our meeting. All of us enjoyed the splendid scenery, the fine architecture, and the international cuisine. We also enjoyed our impromptu play sessions! Inspired by a recent issue of our Magazine, Joe D’Antoni shared his refined (mouthless!) method for completing the Nauru Ending. He also showed us the subtle, hard-to-describe hand motions he uses to successfully extend the ‘Mountain’ figures he described in the 2003 issue of our Bulletin (“it’s all in the wrist action”). Will Wirt shared pictures of 75 mounted string figure specimens he photographed on a recent visit to the University Museum in Philadelphia. The figures were gathered by G.B. Gordon along the Bering Strait during his first trip to Alaska in 1905 (20 of these are illustrated in the back of Jayne’s book). Will is currently tracing the photos and preparing an article on the topic. Mark Sherman shared digital copies of the recently completed 2003 Bulletin (which was still in press at the time).

ISFA Editors in Montreal, August 1, 2004: (From left to right) Joseph D’Antoni, Mark Sherman, and Will Wirt.
Photo by May D’Antoni

During their business meeting the volunteer editors pondered the future of the ISFA and identified issues that need to be tackled. Attracting new members was high on the list of priorities, as was finishing the digitization of the old Bulletin series (1978-1993), updating our web site, and completing the Jenness segment of the Arctic String Figure Project so that it can be distributed on CD. The rest of the meeting was devoted to solving two persistent publishing problems: the constant shortage of funds needed for printing and mailing our Bulletin and Magazine, and the enormous time it takes to illustrate and proofread each issue (which recently has resulted in significant publication delays).

All agreed that one obvious solution to the funding problem would be to eliminate the print version of each publication and replace it with a digital version that could either be distributed on CD, posted at a password-protected web site, or mailed as an e-mail attachment to members. CDs are incredibly cheap to manufacture and mail, but require computer access to read, which not everyone has. Furthermore, it’s not clear whether subscribers will be able to read them 5 years from now when new disc- and file-formats have replaced current favorites. Subscribers would need to be encouraged to print a hard copy of each publication upon receipt of the CD to ensure future access to the information.

Concerning labor, the editors agreed that we must either reduce the length of each issue, reduce the time we spend on labor-intensive tasks (editing, illustrating, and proofreading), or both. Limiting each Bulletin issue to 150-200 pages would significantly reduce the time we spend on pre-press tasks, but not necessarily our actual printing costs since most of the funds are consumed by the labor of setting up the presses, laminating the covers, binding the books, and packing them in cartons. On the other hand, a Bulletin with fewer pages would certainly be cheaper to mail.

Concerning our Magazine: a suggestion was made to replace the hand-drawn illustrations with photographs to reduce the labor load. Photographs were utilized in early issues (1996), but were soon abandoned when it became obvious that issue-to-issue print quality was difficult to control and essential fine detail was often lacking in the photos. However, significant improvements in photocopy technology have occurred since then which largely eliminate both problems. Another option would be to retain the drawings but trace them using computer software rather than a pencil and tracing paper. Remarkably, both require the same amount of time (~30 minutes per drawing), but the latter approach is much more likely to attract volunteer tracers since very little judgment or artistic skill is required (only patience!). As always, we invite you to share your opinions and suggestions with us.

Last updated May 16, 2005
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