ISFA News, Volume 14, no. 1 (March, 2008)

Bulletin Update

Bulletin of the International String Figure Association Vol. 14 (2007) is now in the hands of our volunteer editors for a final proofreading. The 286-book includes a long-awaited tribute to Tom Storer, six research reports, six book/DVD reviews, and five letters to the editor. Currently we anticipate a press run in early May 2008 with mass mailing beginning in late June.

Once members have received all ISFA publications dated 2007 we will begin collecting dues for 2008. However, please be aware that this may not occur until October or November. In the meantime enjoy reading the many fine articles in the forthcoming Bulletin!

Magazine Update

Last year we delayed the publication of String Figure Magazine by six months in order to finish the previous year’s Bulletin. Unfortunately we find ourselves in the same predicament this year. Two years ago when we switched from drawings to color photographs we assumed that production time would be significantly reduced, but in reality it was not. Perhaps now is a good time to adopt a less-labor intensive format for sharing figures with beginners and intermediate students.

Since 1978 when the String Figures Association was founded we have operated under the assumption that methods of construction are best preserved using words alone, accompanied by a drawing of the finished pattern. This is the style we continue to use in our Bulletin. It is certainly not the best way to teach a method of construction — film and video are much better at capturing complex hand movements — but printed words seem more likely to survive in an age where computer file formats change every few years.

However, learning to interpret text-based string figure instructions is an acquired skill. For this reason we launched String Figure Magazine back in 1996. In SFM, descriptions are paired with illustrations showing how to advance to the next step. Over time, readers learn to interpret the instructions without having to rely on the illustrations. In other words, our Magazine is designed to serve as a primer for members who still struggle with the text-based descriptions featured in our Bulletin.

During the ten years in which hard copies of SFM were printed and mailed, nearly 250 methods were described and illustrated. We would like to think that anyone who successfully makes all the figures featured in our Magazine has acquired the skills needed to tackle most of the figures described in our Bulletin. So the question becomes: do we really need to continue publishing SFM now that we have successfully described and illustrated a broad cross-section of figures?

Thanks to recent advances in computer technology and ever-expanding access to the internet, it is now possible to teach someone how to make a string figure without using words — videos posted on YouTube are an excellent example. This is how tribal people transmitted string figures to their offspring in ancient times: simply put, they performed the movements over and over until an onlooker could mimic their actions. In this way string figures transcended language barriers and eventually spread across the globe. Using the internet we can now recapitulate this process, but in a very modern way! Furthermore, it is important to understand that today’s tech-savvy children demand immediate access to material that interests them, if the material is not colorful, animated, and free, they move on. Therefore, in lieu of publishing new issues of SFM, we might want to consider posting monthly video clips on our website. Please share your opinion with us!

New Volunteer Editors

The ISFA is pleased to announce that Myriam Namolaru of Haifa, Israel, and Belinda Holbrook of Davenport, Iowa, USA, have both agreed to serve as volunteer editors/proofreaders for articles published in our Bulletin. Both have demonstrated a long-term interest in string figures, and both have independently undertaken ambitious projects that promote interest in the topic.

Since joining the ISFA Myriam Namolaru has maintained a string figure web site that includes Bulletin and Magazine excerpts translated into French and Hebrew (for details see the September 2006 issue of ISFA News). She also maintains a page of links to other sites that mention or describe string figures. Other contributions include original photos and video clips showing how to make string figures that appeal to her. Belinda Holbrook is a children’s librarian and author. Her recently published book String Stories: A Creative, Hands-On Approach for Engaging Children in Literature (2002) was well-received by educators and string enthusiasts alike. Belinda’s web site ( includes dozens of heart-warming photos of children displaying figures they learned during workshops.

We anticipate that their participation as editors will reduce future publication delays and provide us with a fresh perspective on how to attract new members.

New Members

During the past six months the ISFA acquired 12 new members. If all members from 2007 renew their memberships in 2008, we will have 176 members living in 17 countries.

Our new overseas members are: Nobuko Ishi’i, Tyono-cho, Osaka, Japan; Akira Yamashita, Kyoto, Japan; Galda & Leuchter, Berlin, Germany; John Christeller, Palmerston North, New Zealand; and Gillian Buchanan, London, England; From Canada we welcome Sage Mills, Richmond Hill, Ontario; Andrew Mills, Kleinburg, Ontario; and Justin Harrison, Ottawa, Ontario. Our new US members include Katie Colbert, Hayward, California; Barbara Remboski, Akron, Ohio; Kristin Jones, Belmont, California; and Amy Lerman, Ferndale, Michigan. Rejoining us are Karl Schaffer, Scotts Valley, California and Brian Cox, Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada. Thanks for supporting our small but enthusiastic group!

The Nikkei mentions ISFA

On April 20, 2007, Bulletin editor Tetsuo Sato delivered a lecture at the INAX-sponsored String Figure Exhibition in Osaka (for exhibition details see ISFA News, September 2006). Mr. Satoshi Hatsuda, an editor at Nikkei Inc., attended the lecture and was enthralled by the subject matter. After the lecture Hatsuda mentioned to Sato that he planned to contact Nikkei reporters at various overseas bureaus and ask them to contribute to an article on the current global status of string figures. The article would be published in Nikkei Magazine, a semi-monthly Sunday supplement to The Nikkei, Japan’s largest financial newspaper (circulation 3 million +).

The Nikkei covers not only economic and business news but also science, technology, culture and Japanese social trends. The newspaper’s balance and variety of content attracts many readers. Nikkei Magazine, launched in March 2005, strives to pursue themes that stimulate the intellectual curiosity of its affluent readers, who demand high quality in all aspects of their lives. It distinguishes itself as a newspaper supplement with bold graphic art by a well-known Japanese designer, superior quality, and impressive content.

The reporters that Mr. Hatsuda commissioned included Ms. Noge (Chicago bureau), Mr. Takasa (Sydney bureau), Mr. Mikawa (Bangkok bureau), and Mr. Akagawa (Stuttgart bureau). On May 31 Yoko Noge contacted Mark Sherman, indicating that she was writing an article on the current status of string figures in America. She was intrigued by the field work Sherman had done with Will Wirt among the Navajo and wanted to know if she could coax them into visiting the reservation again before summer’s end so she could interview their informants. But as Mark Sherman explained, this was not possible because the Navajo only make string figures in the winter. Undeterred, Ms. Noge requested the names of additional contacts and asked for a personal interview with Sherman so she could learn more about the seasonal taboos he mentioned. In early July she received approval from Tokyo to fly to Los Angeles with a photojournalist (Marc Pokempner).

Noge and Pokempner visited Mark Sherman at his home on July 14, 2007. Upon arrival Sherman entertained them with a 45-minute PowerPoint presentation describing the history and goals of the ISFA. After answering many questions, Sherman posed for indoor and outdoor photographs. In all over 200 photographs were shot, but only one appeared in the article (Sherman on his patio peering through the two central diamonds of ‘Jacob’s Ladder’). During her meeting with Sherman Yoko Noge confessed that at first, she didn’t understand her boss’s request: “Please investigate and report on the status of string figures in America”. To her, string figures were nothing more than a game played by Japanese children, primarily girls. Why would anyone in America care about string figures? But after hearing Sherman’s presentation she realized that string figures were an ancient global art form that transcended language.

After returning to Chicago she interviewed storyteller Dave Titus, who was conducting an inner-city string figure workshop for under-privileged kids in South Bend, Indiana. Later she met ISFA member Dante Carfagna of Chicago, a record collector she instantly bonded with. (In addition to being a reporter for The Nikkei, Yoko Noge is also a well-known jazz/blues singer with several CDs to her credit. In 2006 she was chosen as “Chicagoan of the Year” by editors of the Chicago Tribune). For her last interview Yoko Noge insisted on traveling to Alaska to meet Mary Olympic and David Nicolai, two of the few Yup’ik Eskimos who still make string figures.

Japanese jazz/blues singer Ms. Yoko Noge performing at the piano in a Chicago nightclub.

On August 14, after her visit to Alaska, Yoko Noge wrote, “In my many years working for the Nikkei, this story was probably the most memorable one for me. The stay at the Igiugig village was an experience. I loved it. The scenes of the village still stay in my mind and I miss the people there. In the village, I felt like I was in the country side of Japan when I was a child. The village elders are forgetting the string figures and their children are not always interested in them. According to David Nicolai there are only 35 people in Yupik-Eskimo culture who are still actively making figures. I can see that even remote villages like Igiugig are changing fast with the introduction of satellite dishes and internet connections. Fortunately there are still some young people who are genuinely interested in preserving their culture. I saw several young faces at the Heritage Center during my visit. We Japanese have already lost a lot of our tradition. In a way, those ‘people in the north’ might have a much stronger drive and unity than we do.”

The published article appeared in the Nikkei Magazine dated Sunday, September 16, 2007, (pages 11-15). Photographs of Mary Olympic and her family appeared on the cover. Noge’s report consumed three of the five pages plus portions of the fourth. Her photographer Marc Pokempner contributed seventeen photographs of individuals making string figures, including photos shot in Alaska (Mary Olympic and her family, David Nicolai and his family), Illinois (female African-American singer and Dante Carfagna), and Indiana (Dave Titus and children from his inter-city workshop). Under Sherman’s photograph, the caption read, “ISFA Director Mark Sherman has visited the Navajo people year after year to encourage them to keep making their traditional string figures.”

Photographs of locals making string figures, contributed by other overseas reporters, were featured on pages 14 and 15: Mr. Takasa of the Sydney bureau submitted photographs of two girls from Fiji, a woman from Sydney, and Mr. Wiremu Te Kiri, a Maori from New Zealand; Mr. Mikawa of the Bangkok bureau submitted a photograph of two Thai women; Mr. Akagawa of the Stuttgart bureau submitted a photograph of a Nordic woman.

Readers can expect to hear more about Wiremu Te Kiri in future issues of our newsletter. Mr. Kiri is a producer of General Programs for the Maori Television Service in New Zealand. Currently he is filming a documentary on string figures, shot in New Zealand, Australia, and Hawaii. So far he has learned over sixty string figures from his Maori mother. His documentary focuses on indigenous people who love to make string figures as a form of entertainment. The figure he made for Mr. Takasa is called te manawa o nuku tau paroro i tahuna ai i te tahi which means ‘the burnt heart of tau paroro skewed on a stick.’ The figure is from the Whakatohea tribe and retells the story of an evil chief. In a message to Mark Sherman, Mr. Kiri reported: “Yeah, it was cool chatting to the Nikkei reporter about whai. Recently I filmed an interview in Hawaii, it was great. I filmed a native Hawaiian man in his 50s who learnt hei when he was a child. He taught me figures and lots of chants as well.

Copyright restrictions prevent us from reproducing the Nikkei Magazine article and its photographs in this issue of ISFA News, but newspaper subscribers can access a digital copy online.

ISFA member Jim Bosma displaying ‘Cho’ (Japanese Butterfly). Jim and his wife visited Pasadena in October 2007. Jim teaches 6th grade at the Public Christian School in Neerlandia, Alberta, Canada (population 750). Each winter during “String Figure Week” students are taught classic figures and are not chastised for fiddling with their loops during lectures on required curriculum.

Last updated April 7, 2009
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