ISFA News, Volume 6, no. 1 (March, 2000)

ISFA Publishes Sixth Bulletin

In mid-December the 1999 Bulletin was mailed to all members. The 302-page issue featured new string figure collections from India, Burma, and Alaska, plus a few from New Zealand. The issue opened with a tribute to Kathleen Haddon and closed with a delightful series of modern figures created by Tetsuo Sato and Kazuo Kamiya. Also included were three storytelling articles and two math-related articles. George Bennet presented his shorthand nomenclature for recording methods and Martin Probert contributed a thought provoking essay on the possible origin of string figures. The "best string figure" award undoubtedly goes to James Murphy for his ‘Cherokee Seven Stars’ figure -- a marvelous example of how to design a beautiful string figure using math.

The editors wish to thank everyone who contributed an article or letter. Unfortunately our authors often receive little or no feedback, so please send them a letter or e-mail message if you particularly enjoyed something they wrote. The cost of printing the 1999 Bulletin was $4017. The cost of mailing it was $1115.

If you wish to submit an article or letter for publication in the 2000 Bulletin, please do so no later than June 1. You need not be a scholar to write an article (that’s what editors are for!), nor an artist (we gladly accept string figures taped to sheets of paper in lieu of photos or drawings).

2000 membership dues

Membership renewal forms were included in the December 1999 mailing. Again we requested $25 from each member to help offset the cost of printing and mailing our publications ($35 for overseas airmail service). A space for donations was also provided on the form.

Since we still have not reached our goal of 250 members (our "break even" point), your donations remain essential to our survival. We like to call our biggest donors "string figure angels" in recognition of their generosity. So far 17 members qualify as angels this year (an angel being someone who donates an extra $25 or more -- and sometimes a lot more!). They are: Yukio Shishido, Tetsuo Sato, Marcia Gaynor, William Lawrence, Jeffry Lipton, Mike Mangan, David McDaniel, Steve Newkirk, David Parkinson, Paul Power, John Sigwald, Dave Titus, Will and Lillie Wirt, James Murphy, Joseph D’Antoni, and Tom Storer. Please join me in thanking them for their MUCH APPRECIATED support!

As of today (March 1), only 80 of our 184 members from 1999 have renewed -- a rather disappointing turn-out. Please remember that we rely heavily on dues to help pay for the printing and mailing of our annual Bulletin (~$5000) and quarterly Magazine (~$2800).

New Members

During the past six months the ISFA acquired 18 new members. One previous member rejoined. If all of our 1999 members renew, we will have 196 members residing in 21 countries.

Our new overseas members are: Enrico Vecchi, Padova, Italy; Brigitte Schulthess and Philipp Steiner, Baden, Switzerland; Michael K. Taylor, East Sussex, England; and Kei- ichi Kaneco, Tokyo, Japan. In the USA our new members are: Elizabeth Tayne, Franklin, Massachusetts; Lois and Earl Stokes, Princeville, Hawaii; Deborah Vaden, Dallas, Texas; Laurel Sharp, Syracuse, New York; Michael Grigsby, Columbus, Ohio; Jeremy Rendina, Brooklyn, New York; E. Carolyn Bernard, Orange, New Jersey; Peggy Grove, Lafayette, California; Kathy Pappas, Natick, Massachusetts; Michael Garofalo, Red Bluff, California; Claire Miller, Fair Oaks, California; Joyce Cohen, New York, New York; Dean Abel, Iowa City, Iowa; Marna Holt, Enola, Pennsylvania; and Fred Schreiber, Fresno, California. Rejoining us is Valerie Baadh, Brisbane, California. Welcome!

ISFA in New York Times

A half-page article about string figure web sites appeared in the February 3 issue of the New York Times (page D11). The article was written by columnist Joyce Cohen. Ten members of the ISFA were either quoted or mentioned in the article, including Mark Sherman, Richard Ratajczak, Will Wirt, Tom Cutrofello, Edd Sterchi, Myriam Namolaru, Richard Darsie, Joseph D’Antoni, David Titus, and Valerie Baadh. Illustrations consisted of two photos of Will Wirt’s hands making arctic string figures. The entire article also appeared in the on-line version of the New York Times.

Columnist Joyce Cohen did a great deal of research before writing the article, including phone interviews, web searches, and e-mail questionnaires. The resulting article was both informative and entertaining. Topics covered in the article included the probable antiquity of string figures, ISFA’s arctic string figure project, string figures in TV ads and in newspaper cartoons, Darsie’s on-line collection of string figures, the ever-popular cat’s cradle series, animated string figure illustrations on the web, Dave Titus’s "String Figure Store," and the knot theory behind string figures.

As a gesture of thanks for the free publicity her article generated, reporter Joyce Cohen was named an honorary member of the ISFA for the year 2000. Thanks Joyce!

ISFA Millennium Expedition to Navajoland

Technology and string figures don’t often co-exist. Many indigenous peoples abandon their traditional string figures once television and video games arrive. But not so in Navajoland -- here traditional string figures are very much alive.

"Navajoland" is slang for the Navajo Indian Reservation that consumes much of northern Arizona, New Mexico, and parts of southern Utah. On several occasions this past winter Will and Lillie Wirt visited Navajoland in search of string figures. On one occasion they were joined by ISFA members Mark Sherman and Dave Titus. The visits were made during winter since that’s when spiders hibernate and that’s when the Navajo people are allowed to play "string games." Since spiders are such good weavers, playing string games in front of them is considered arrogant and rude, hence the seasonal taboo. It is also taboo for pregnant Navajo women to make or even look at string figures, presumably because the umbilical cord might strangle the unborn child in the womb.

Wirt’s visit was inspired by the 26 Navajo string figures recorded by Mrs. Jayne way back in 1904. Did the Navajo people still remember how to make them? Have the methods changed any since Jayne recorded them? Were other figures known back then but not shown to Jayne? Does the current repertoire include any newly invented or newly introduced figures? These were the questions Will hoped to answer. Remarkably, he was able to answer all of them! In addition to the figures gathered by Jayne -- most of which were still known -- Will managed to collect several dozen new figures, often accompanied by colorful legends and/or spiritual lore.

Expedition members quickly learned that gathering string figures in Navajoland is not always easy. Whereas some informants were willing to share openly, often taking great pride in their skills, others were reluctant to participate unless one of us made a few figures first. Then it became a contest to see who could outdo whom. Most informants willingly accepted a colorful string loop as a trade offering once the impromptu session was finished. Surprisingly, some of our most successful collecting sessions occurred spontaneously at gas stations, fast food restaurants, or at trading posts.

On one occasion members of the expedition visited an elementary school where children were engaged in a school-wide string figure contest. The walls of the classroom were covered with illustrations of traditional string figures, each bearing a caption written in Navajo. A large wall chart summarized all the figures currently being made. Children as young as five years old were seen making ‘Apache Door’ (which they call ‘Rug’) and ‘Navajo Drum’ -- a delightfully realistic 3-D figure that’s simple to make.

Members of the expedition also learned from the teacher that each figure in the traditional repertoire has a spiritual meaning -- something that’s often ignored during play time. We also learned that many Navajo string figures actually represent constellations (Jayne’s ‘A Man’ for example) or celestial objects (Jayne’s ‘Horned Star,’ which represents a comet). These were once used to teach children about the sky.

Currently there are over 100,000 Navajos living on the reservation. Both English and Navajo are spoken nearly everywhere. Clearly, much effort is being directed toward preserving the local culture, including string figures. On several occasions prominent members of the Navajo Nation expressed an interest in having ISFA help them document their traditional string figure repertoire, either through video or CD-ROM technology. Currently Will Wirt is working on a string figure CD-ROM to show them how modern technology can be applied to cultural preservation projects. The figures he gathered will appear in a future issue of our Bulletin.

Alaskan String Adventures

In December professional storyteller Dave Titus returned to Alaska to collect string figures. Below is a description of his adventures.

I just returned from Alaska and had a great trip. I was able to visit the village of Eek. It is on the Bering Sea at the mouth of the Kuskokwim river near Bethel. This is the very area that Gordon collected many of his string figures published in the 1999 Bulletin. It is called Eek because even the Eskimos cannot pronounce the proper name.

Eek is a Yupik village and everyone speaks Yupik as their first language. In the public school Yupik is the language of instruction for grades K, 1 and 2. English is taught as a second language. Of course almost all of the children know English by the time they get to school.

I spent five days there and taught string figures at a young writers conference. They flew in 4th, 5th, and 6th graders from five other villages. There were about 35 students in all. Many of the children knew some common figures like ‘Fishing Net’ (Jacob’s Ladder), ‘Broom’ (from Scissors), ‘Cup and Saucer,’ ‘Spear,’ and ‘Bird’ (Man Carrying a Kayak) — a very difficult figure with complicated moves, yet a number of children could make it.

While there I met an elder who knew many, many figures. He knew everything from the article on Southwestern Alaska Figures (Bulletin 6) as well as maybe 25 more figures. I went through Jenness’s book "Eskimo String Figures" with him and he knew a lot of them. He allowed me to videotape him making figures. He would not show me how to make the figures but he would show another Yupik and let me watch.

I was not able to get the names of the figures or the stories that go along with them because the elder was deaf and had no spoken language. His ability to use sign language was also very limited. He had no children and did not have a very high standing in the village until my visit (things are different now!).

After teaching the village children a number of figures they wanted to learn more. Now that the school realizes that string figures are a valuable part of their heritage they are talking about having the elder come in during cultural heritage time to teach some of the figures. They now see him as a "treasure."

I was told that there are a number of people in the region who know string figures. Many people told about their parents or grandparents storytelling with string. It looks like I will be returning next year for the same writers conference and will probably get to travel to some of the other villages on that trip.

It’s unfortunate that I was not able to get string stories from the deaf elder. Earlier this year I was talking on the phone to a young native teacher in Kipnuk, Alaska, who was describing a couple of string figures that he knows. I quickly learned that one has to know something about their culture to fully understand their string figures. Concerning one figure he said, "along comes Bear and Ptarmigan sees him, -- that’s why ptarmigans’ eyes are like they are." Since I had no idea how ptarmigans’ eyes look, I could not visualize what he was talking about. Concerning ‘A Man in a Kayak’ he said, "and then the man has to urinate so he gets out his cup." At first I didn’t understand the connection, but then I realized that once you’re settled in a water-tight kayak getting out is not easy -- you cannot simply step to the edge of the boat when nature calls. Anyway, if I ever learn the string figure he described, I'm not sure that I will be teaching it to elementary students!

New String Figure Bibliography

The third edition of Tom Storer’s monumental "String Figure Bibliography" is nearly ready to print. Since so many ISFA members have participated in its preparation over the years, Dr. Storer has asked that it henceforth be referred to as the "ISFA String Figure Bibliography." The third edition includes nearly 500 more entries than the second edition, which we published in 1996. Of the 1833 total entries, 323 include diagrams (illustrations) and procedures for making figures, 358 include diagrams only, and 19 include procedures only (fortunately, these are rather rare!). The remaining entries either provide string figure titles, confirm the occurrence of string figures in various geographic regions, or discuss the lore and legends often associated with string figures. The author also cites cartoons, novels, calendars, and advertisements that mention and/or illustrate string figures being made.

The ISFA "String Figure Bibliography" is an essential tool for anyone wishing to undertake serious research in the field. Tracking down the individual items in university libraries is also great fun -- like a treasure hunt! ISFA Press is currently accepting orders and hope to have spiral-bound volumes ready to ship by the end of summer. To reserve a copy, send a check or money order for $19.95 to ISFA Press (the address is given on page 1). We also accept Visa and Mastercard.

Tom Storer is already working on the fourth edition, so please continue to send new items to him at the University of Michigan (Dept. of Math, Ann Arbor, Michigan, 48109). Don’t forget to include the full title, date, author, page numbers, publisher, and city.

Lending Library and Video Archive Two of the greatest challenges facing a new string figure enthusiast are: (1) locating classic string figure literature, and (2) deciphering the instructions in the classic literature!

Much of the literature consists of scholarly articles published in anthropological journals in the early 1900s. These journals are rarely found in public libraries. Usually one must visit a large university library, and once the article is located one must hope that the library has a liberal photocopying policy (not true in places like Great Britain, where patrons are often limited to five pages!).

Understanding the instructions is another obstacle. Oftentimes, a new string figure enthusiast will not succeed in making a desired figure, even after several attempts. And since most authors do not illustrate intermediate stages, it becomes exceedingly difficult to discover which step is being misinterpreted. At this point many beginners simply give up.

As an international organization dedicated to the preservation and distribution of string figure knowledge, solving the "availability of literature" problem should be one of our primary goals. The most logical approach would be to establish a library that would lend key articles and books to ISFA members. But how would it work? Books and photocopies are heavy, and sending them overseas can be quite expensive. Would members be willing to pay the fee? The cost of returning the borrowed items would also need to be considered. For how long could items be borrowed? And what would be the penalty for not returning items? (I would vote for beheading, since many items are quite rare and impossible to replace). Rather than lending originals, would it be better for ISFA to sell photocopies of out-of-print books and articles? If so, is it legal to do so? Who would be in charge of making the photocopies and mailing them? (a remarkably time consuming job!). These are all very important issues that would need to be addressed before a lending library could become a reality.

Solving the "misinterpretation" problem is more of a challenge. Perhaps advanced members with home video cameras (camcorders) could volunteer to film themselves making an entire collection of string figures (for example, someone could make some or all of the figures in Hornell’s book "String Figures from Fiji" or Wirt’s Bulletin article "String Figures from China and Tibet"). The resulting video tapes could then be sent to a central archive where beginners could borrow them and study them. Once the beginner sees what the author is trying to describe in writing, deciphering other sets of instructions becomes much easier. But how would the video archive deal with the NTSC/PAL/SECAM format problem? (For example, tapes made by French members cannot be viewed on American tape players and vice-versa). And what would be the penalty for not returning a tape? Would a deposit be required? Would it be better to send copies? If so, who would be in charge of making the copies and mailing them?

If you have an opinion, an idea, or a solution that would help us launch our lending library and video archive, we want to hear from you. I am confident that somehow we can make it work.

String Figure Discussion Group: Summary of Topics

As of December 1999 our e-mail discussion group is now hosted by Unlike our previous host, onelist provides this service for free. For further details on how to subscribe contact Will Wirt at Below is a summary of topics from the last six months. If you’re not a participant but would like a printed copy of a specific message, please write to us.

Last updated February 4, 2001
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