The Arctic String Figure Project
Inuit (Eskimo) string figures are among the most difficult figures to make from written descriptions. The figures are often asymmetric, requiring different moves on each hand. During their formation the arms frequently point away from you with fingers closed to the palm. This makes terms like near, far, upper, and lower difficult to interpret. Many require the retrieval of strings from the center or sides of the design, a maneuver that is difficult to describe in the absence of an illustration. As a result, most Inuit string figures are inaccessible to beginners, and many even elude experienced enthusiasts.
ISFA therefore announces the "Arctic String Figure Project." The term "Arctic" has been chosen since the term "Inuit" does not accurately describe all of the native inhabitants of Alaska and Siberia. The primary goal of the project is to rewrite (in English) all of the descriptions previously published by Gordon (1906), Jenness (1924), Victor (1940), Paterson (1949), and Mary-Rousselière (1969), clarifying ambiguous passages and illustrating key intermediate stages as needed. Illustrations showing the final figure extended on the hands will also be generated since only Victor provides them.
We are also interested in unpublished material (manuscripts and film footage): if you know of any, please contact us. If and when we obtain funding, we also hope to visit several poorly characterized regions (Southern Alaska, St. Lawrence Island, the Aleutian Islands, Labrador, and Lappland) to gather additional figures before they disappear completely. If you are currently doing field work or living in the North and would like to participate, please contact us!
- Part 1: Gordon's Collection (Bering Strait, Alaska) - Revised instructions and illustrations appeared in our 1996 Bulletin. Drawings of the final patterns are also given by Caroline Furness Jayne in her book "String Figures and How to Make Them" (pages 359-365). Additional figures, collected at the mouth of the Kuskokwim River in southwest Alaska, were published in our 1999 Bulletin.
- Part 2: Jenness's Collection (Alaska, Siberia, Western Canada) - Revised instructions and illustrations appeared in our 2009 Bulletin. Online instructions and illustrations are now in our "members only" area. To become a member, please complete our online application form.
- Part 3: Victor's Collection (East Greeland)
- Part 4: Paterson's Collection (Eastern Canada and West Greenland)
- Part 5: Mary-Rousseliere's Collection (Central Canada)
- Gordon (1906) "Notes on the Western Eskimos." Transactions of the Free Museum of Science and Art, Dept. of Archaeology, Univ. of Pennsylvania 2(1):87-97.
- Jayne, C.F. (1906) String Figures. New York, Charles Scribners's Sons. (reprinted 1962 by Dover, New York, as String Figures and How to Make Them).
- Jenness, D. (1924) "Eskimo String Figures." Report of the Canadian Arctic Expedition, 1913-1918, volume 13, part B:1-192.
- Mary-Rousselière, G. (1969) "Les Jeux de Ficelle des Arviligjuarmiut." Musées Nationaux du Canada, Bulletin 233:1-182.
- Paterson, T.T. (1949) "Eskimo String Figures and their Origin." Acta Arctica 3:1-98.
- Victor, P.E. (1940) "Jeux d'Enfants et d'Adultes chez les Eskimo d'Angmagssalik: Les Jeux de Ficelle." Meddelelser om Grønland 125(7):1-212.
Last updated December 30, 2011
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