introduction to north american indian figures

a fortuitous happenstance

While developing my ‘Ten Men’ system in the early 1980s, a friend of mine became interested in finding ways for me to show the world what I could do with string figures. One of the things he did was to promise the International Institute of Photography that i could give a lecture on Eskimo string figures in six weeks time. And he not only said i could do it, but negotiated a $200 honorarium for my time and trouble. Well, i found myself in an interesting situation, and ran to get help.

Immediately i went to the Museum of the American Indian at 155th and Broadway and found that they had a library in the north Bronx which might have some books on string figures as formed by Native Americans, including the Inuit (which is what the Eskimo call themselves). i went up there on the subway and found a book by Diamond Jenness which was a record of an expedition into Inuit country in the years 1913-18. In this record was a description of 156 string figures he had collected during the expedition. i learned about twenty of them in time for my professional debut as a string figure expert and was warmly received by the audience.

Mastering the technical language Jenness used for recording methods of manufacture (that of Rivers and Haddon) was hard work — i spent three days trying to make my first Inuit figure. But in the early part of this century nearly all anthropologists used this language and provided nothing more than a single drawing of the completed figure at the end. Today you can still go to the 42nd Street Library and find articles in anthropology journals about places once perceived as strange and the string figures they made there (though i would recommend the international string figure association on the internet and many other sources of information about string figures). i’ve done that, and have spent many long hours trying to understand their terse instructions. Eventually I would succeed, but was frustrated by the fact that each method of manufacture had to be memorized individually in a painstaking, laborious, manner that forestalled the learning process — these figures were not something my students would assimilate easily.

For this reason i developed my own approach for learning string figures and teaching them to others, a systematic approach in which the method of manufacture is broken down into distinct phases, each of which can be altered to create new designs.

i also present present two other closely related string figures: the ‘Dine’ (Navajo) Net’ and the ‘Klamath Net.’ A great deal of time should be devoted to learning the three basic nets — as if memorizing multiplication tables — so that each becomes indelibly fixed in their minds. During this time students need to correlate what their eyes see with what their hands feel and what their mouths say as they recite the key words of the weaving sequence aloud. All these mind and hand activities need to become automatic and fully integrated for an unconscious ease of thinking to occur.

To help my students assimilate and comprehend the interrelatedness of the three North American Net figures i examine, i divide each of their construction sequences into four distinct phases:

Loom Phase

Weaving Phase (‘First Weave’ and ‘Second Weave’)

Loop Shifting Phase

Finishing Phase (‘Fixing the Bottom’ and ‘Cleaning the Top’).

In the Loom Phase (a building phase), three loops are established on each hand. This is followed by two distinct sets of weaves in which strings are drawn through loops, thus forming the heart or center of the evolving design.

In the Loop Shifting Phase that follows, various loops are either released and/or transferred to different fingers so that they can be further manipulated.

In the first half of the Finishing Phase (which i call ‘Fixing the Bottom’), the string destined to become the lower frame string of the design is drawn through various loops in a complex manner, thus creating a more stable configuration in the lower regions of the design. In the second half of the Finishing Phase (which i call ‘Cleaning the Top’) the string destined to become the upper frame string is drawn through a loop which is subsequently released, thus leaving two loops on each hand, each of which has a transverse string. When drawn taut, an intricate net appears.

after mastering any one, but preferrably all these three figures, one is prepared to tackle the ensuing lessons to make many very interesting and beautiful figures.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *