ISFA News, Volume 11, no. 1 (March, 2005)

Eleventh Bulletin Update

It is with great frustration that we announce yet another delay in the publication of last year’s Bulletin of the International String Figure Association, which we previewed in September newsletter. Unfortunately, the four major articles that comprise it are still being edited and illustrated. During the past six months our volunteer editors have spent most of their time illustrating the December and March issues of our Magazine, updating our web pages, doing some fieldwork among the Hopi and Zuni Indians, proofreading a new bilingual book on Navajo string games (by elder Marjorie Thomas), and contributing items to the forthcoming museum exhibit in Germany (see below). The current status of each article can be summarized as follows:

Innu (Naskapi-Montagnais) String Figures (Waugh, Sherman): Instructions have been finalized and are being tested; a nearly-complete set of photographs has been made; archival photographs of the author and his informants have been secured, and a letter of permission to publish has been obtained from the Canadian Museum of Civilization; maps, and a draft version of the introduction are likewise complete.

String Games of the Navajo, Part III (Sherman, Wirt): Instructions are still in manuscript form and photographs are still lacking; once available, they will need to be traced to create the required line drawings; as a final task the previously published distribution table will need to be updated to reflect the newly gathered data.

The String Games and Cat’s Cradles of Palau (Raymund, translated by Reichert): A literal English translation of Raymund’s 1911 article was completed last year and has since been rewritten in standard English; copies of the original plates have been ordered; a comparative table that summarizes where instructions for making the figures can be found in the literature is nearly finished; the task of rewriting all the cited instructions for inclusion in the article has yet to be undertaken.

Real Cat’s Cradle Revelation (Escudeiro): This article is essentially complete but still in manuscript form. The article must be typed, edited, and the line drawings digitized. Once finished it must be proofread by the author and a second editor.

Obviously there is still much work to be done, and once finished the book must be printed (six weeks) and mailed (four to six weeks), so it is unlikely that the 2004 Bulletin will arrive on your doorstep in the near future. But rest assured, everyone who paid dues last year will receive a copy.

Ironically, the entire contents of the 2005 Bulletin is already finished. Earlier this year, founding member Yukio Shishido completed his five-year translation of Tama Saito’s magnum opus Ayatori (The String Figures of Japan). Her study is based on several decades of fieldwork conducted in the 47 prefectures of her home country. The highly detailed monograph includes figure titles, methods of construction (nearly 300!), synonym lists, and lovely brush/pen-and-ink drawings. Since the drawings have already been digitized and the text will not require much editing, we may end up publishing it immediately (within the next three months) and calling it our 2004 Bulletin in order to get us back on schedule. So don’t be surprised if this is what you get in your next package from the ISFA!

Illustrations from Saito's manuscript

New Members

During the past six months the ISFA acquired 17 new members. So far 164 of last year’s members have renewed their memberships. If everyone renews, we will have 235 members living in 22 countries.

Our new overseas members are: Michael Cysouw, Leipzig, Germany; Martina Kleinert, Creussen, Germany; Kazuya Okushima, Yokohama-city, Japan; and Libby Patterson, Auckland, New Zealand. From Canada we welcome Martin Damus, Greely, Ontario; Michele Gage, Victoria, British Columbia; and Michael Ryan, Courtice, Ontario. Our new US members include Debra Gehrke, Anahola, Hawaii; Kate Ayers, Indianapolis, Indiana; Hannah Ferenc, Moretown, Vermont; Rolf Terhokoski, Atlanta, Georgia; India Fratus, Sebastopol, California; Paul Cline, Winston-Salem, North Carolina; Lisa King, Syosset, New York; Keara Sonntag, Cincinnati, Ohio; Fred Lowery, Mansfield, Louisiana; and Julie Harris, Nashville, Tennessee. We are glad to have you among us.

String Figure Exhibit in Germany

Curators at the Übersee-Museum in Bremen, Germany, are organizing a major string figure exhibit, perhaps the first ever. The name of the exhibit is Ein Faden verbindet: Weltumspannende Fadenspiele (A String Connects Us: Global String Games). The exhibit opens May 8, 2005 and will last until August 21, 2005.

The exhibit team includes: Anka Bolduan and Heide Menge (science educators employed by the Museum), Professor Manfred Polzin (University of Bremen), Lothar Walschik, also known as "ABOINUDI, die Fadenspieler" (UNESCO endorsed teacher and performer, author of Fadenspiele sind mehr!) and Maren Rahlf (a student at the University of Leipzig whose thesis examines the theatrical aspects of making string figures). Each is working on a different geographical region (North America, Oceania, Australia, Asia, Africa and South America). For the display panels and the exhibit brochure each team member will summarize what is known about the historical and cultural significance of string figures in their assigned region, plus provide names of common designs, illustrations of two or three representative figures, and instructions for making them.

The exhibit will also include samples of string from different cultures (including a rare human hair string from Honor Maude’s collection!), photographs and video footage of tribal people making string figures, and an interactive learning station where visitors can attempt to mimic hands making Navajo figures (video clips courtesy of Will Wirt). On June 11 ISFA acting director Mark Sherman will be showing off his skills at the “Long Night of the Museums” during which every museum of the city has a special program with different activities. On June 15 he will be lecturing on the fieldwork he did with Will Wirt on the Navajo Indian reservation.

Members of the ISFA will be well-represented at the exhibit. Earlier this year exhibit organizer Anka Bolduan had the idea of asking string figure enthusiasts from around the world to send their favorite string figure fixed on a piece of letter-sized cardboard, and to provide information about it, including its name, its origin, its method of construction, and any story, song, or chant that accompanies it. To personalize the presentation she also requested information about the sender (name, age, address, e-mail, and a photo). ISFA members who have e-mail addresses already know about this, having been notified in mid-March. If you would like to contribute a string figure to the exhibit, send the requested items to:

Anka Bolduan
Bahnhofsplatz 13
D-28195 Bremen

Tel.: 0049-421-160 38 172
Fax: 0049-421-160 38 99

The city of Bremen, located west of Hamburg, is currently competing with nine other German cities for the title of “Cultural Capital of Europe 2010”. The candidacy concentrates on the city’s modernization process, where culture and art, together with science and technology, have become more and more important in challenging its existing traditional economic and social structures. To achieve a competitive edge, Bremen has challenged its citizens to throw surprising new ideas into the city’s cultural forum, to put “Bremish” and “Foreign” together under productive tension with the goal of achieving a sense of impulse, exchange, friction, and wonder. In short, the city wants new questions and new answers. Projects, themes, and ideas from other cultures should find a new life in Bremen. I’m sure you will agree that the Übersee Museum’s forthcoming string figure exhibit fits nicely with this goal. To learn more about the Übersee (“Oversea”) Museum in Bremen and their impressive ethnographic collection, visit their web site at To learn more about the cultural competition visit

Feedback on “Future of the ISFA”

In our last newsletter we reported on two important concerns that were raised during our business meeting in Montréal last August, namely, 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.

As a solution to the funding problem the volunteer editors discussed the possibility of eliminating the print version of each publication and replacing 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. As a solution to the labor problem, 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. Concerning our Magazine, a suggestion was made to either replace the hand-drawn illustrations with photographs, or to retain the drawings but trace them using computer software rather than a pencil and tracing paper.

Feedback from members was minimal, but helpful nonetheless. The following response from Lori Lachance Murdoch of Vancouver Island, Canada, was particularly thoughtful and encouraging:

November 29, 2004

Dear Mark, Joe, and Will:

I just got my latest magazine and newsletter — I can hardly wait to go through it all in detail. THANK YOU, HUGS, and BOUQUETS to each one of you for the HOURS and MONEY you put into the ISFA!!! Awesome. I’ve skimmed over the newsletter and empathize with your questions re: volunteer time (possible burnout?), costs, membership, and efficiency. It concerns me that so very much is on the shoulders of you three.

I, for one, am indebted to each of you for ALL that you do. Since joining a few years ago I’ve caught the string figure bug and have made a point of collecting all the back issues of the Bulletin & Magazine — to me it’s exciting and comforting to have so much information available to me. Though I don’t understand all the articles and some wonderful figures elude me, it’s GREAT having so much to aspire to.

Selfishly, it’s important to ME to make sure things are easier for you — that way I get more, more, more information. Having pondered the points raised in the newsletter I would like to offer my ponderings....

I so appreciate ALL that you do! I seem to live in String Figure Isolation on Vancouver Island so all the printed material I have is very important to me. I love all that you do and wish to do more.

I, too, was disappointed that the Festival [in Montréal] was cancelled (I changed my plans when I heard, too bad.... it would have been great to meet y’all). For now, I’ll still try to drum up more members!

Cheers and Blessings,
Lori in Vancouver

Last updated November 9, 2005
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