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Dan Ninham
Special to Indian Country Today

As a child, Christine Begay knew it was time for string games when the first snow arrived in Shiprock.

The traditional stories told with string were a highlight of the winter season. Manipulating the string between two hands, the designs told of coyotes going in different directions, of a cat’s cradle, or the sun and the moon.

Some were humorous, and some, she knew, were warnings to be patient and pay attention.

“String games hold stories that are passed down from generation to generation,” said Begay, Diné, who now lives in Bemidji, Minnesota. “Some are funny interpretations, while most are significant in culture as they tell the origin of an array of objects and characters pertinent to Navajo culture.”

No one knows for sure the origins of string figures, but they once were known to nearly all Native inhabitants of East Asia, Australia, Africa, the Arctic, the Americas, and the Pacific Islands, according to the International String Figures Association.

Some designs are believed to be ancient, perhaps dating from the Stone Age, though their function varied from place to place. In some locations, string figures provided a much-needed artistic outlet — competitions were held to see who could make the most interesting design. In other locations, string figures were used by tribal storytellers to illustrate their tales. In some areas, string figures served as good luck charms to help ensure a bountiful harvest or a successful hunt.

And they endure today across the world, whether you’re Navajo or Apache in the Southwest, Inuit in the North, or Aboriginal Australian or Japanese. But the games are for winter only in most communities. When the first thunder arrives in spring — a sign that the earth is awakening — the strings are put away.

“This is a wonderful way to spend time with family during the long, winter nights,” said Rebecca Stoneman-Washee, Lenape, coordinator of the San Juan School District Heritage Language Resource Center in Utah.

“String games are a way to share stories and laugh with one another and learn about the night sky and the stars and the Holy People.”

Diné string games

According to Navajo oral traditions, string games originated with Na’ashjé’ii Asdzéé, Spider Woman, or sometimes Grandmother Spider, to simulate a spider weaving its web.

Freddie Johnson, Diné, a Navajo cultural specialist at the Phoenix Indian Center, participated recently in a Zoom session on string games as part of the center’s Winter Storytelling Series.

The stories are told when spiders, insects and certain birds are hibernating, he said.

“We teach about all these insects, animals, and the birds during winter,” he told the participants. “They go back into the earth and rest and sleep. The earth also hibernates … It’s disrespectful to do string games in the company of certain beings, certain birds, spiders, snakes, and the thunder and lightning. By doing these games during this time, there may be harm to you.”

Freddie Johnson, Diné, a Navajo cultural specialist at the Phoenix Indian Center, presented a Zoom session in late 2021 as a part of the center's Winter Storytelling Series. (Photo courtesy of Trevor Foster)

The stories teach children — as well as their parents — patience and discipline, he told the participants. 

“Spider Woman introduced string games so that our children will learn how to control their thoughts,” Johnson said. “String games require focus, a lot of repetitive motion with the fingers to design stars, two coyotes racing in opposing directions, or a bird’s nest.”

Johnson provided instruction on how to create string games related to the sky and constellations, and also created a sweat lodge figure that can be seen as a witch's broom or teepee, or, if flipped, a cedar tree or parachute. 

An article published in 2000 by the International String Figure Association described more than 100 years of research that found that string figures have endured in Navajo culture for generations.

Researchers Will Wirt and Mark Sherman, with cultural notes contributed by Mike Mitchell, gathered information on the games in the winter of 1999-2000, and found many of the same games that had been documented by researchers in the early 1900s, according to the article.

“Among the Navajo and many other Native American tribes, string figures are routinely referred to as string games,” the article states in a footnote. “A request for string figures is often greeted with a blank stare.”

Sometimes a ceremony is presented first to appease Spider Woman. Pregnant women are generally prohibited from participating or even observing the game.

A Navajo elder told writer Cal M. Nez in 2005 that string games originated with Grandmother Spider, caring for her warrior twin grandsons. She used the strings and songs to tell the creation story, designing the string as she worked.

Tutorials on how to do string games are widely available on the internet, including a YouTube instruction for making a design that can be the witch’s broom or teepee.

The Fort Defiance Indian Health Board produced videos on two string games, “Coyotes Running in Opposite Directions” and “The Big Star,” but offer the videos only during winter months.

An Aboriginal woman makes a string figure known as Damala or Sea Eagle at Shady Beach in 2010 in Australia. String figures, or string games, are popular in Indigenous communities throughout the world, though they are generally limited to wintertime in the United States and many other places. (Photo courtesy of Robyn McKenzie)

Yirrkala string figures

Across the globe in the community of Yirrkala in the Northern Territory of Australia, string figures have likewise endured for generations among the Indigenous people who make their home there.

Dr. Robyn McKenzie, a research fellow at the Centre for Digital Humanities Research at The Australian National University in Canberra, has worked closely with the Yolngu community of Yirrkala in North-East Arnhem Land, and she reconnected them with a collection of 192 mounted string figures made there in 1948 that is in the Australian Museum in Sydney.

The museum, where Frederick McCarthy was the curator from 1920 to 1964, ”held the world’s largest known collection of string figures from one community made at one time,” according to the website.

McKenzie’s doctoral dissertation, “The String Figures of Yirrkala,” came from her work in the community. She has published other journal articles on Indigenous people and their string figures.

“String figures are known by mathematicians as ‘unknots,’” McKenzie told Indian Country Today. “They always undo, come apart, and unravel. They are transient. They are not things, but a process. They exist in the moment of making them, and then they are gone. You are left again with the loop of string.”

The simplicity of the figures defy their importance to Indigenous cultures, she said.

“The ordinariness of this material, and the intangible nature of the forms that are made with it, the idea that it is a game for children, all conspire to undervalue the practice of string figure making,” she said. “It is precisely these characteristics that make string figures such a versatile and powerful cultural tool or agent … portable, multifaceted in their potential, with many and various capabilities. They are nothing and everything. It was just something people did. It was part of life.”

Dr. Robyn McKenzie has studied string figures, or string games, among Aboriginal people in Australia. (Photo courtesy of Robyn McKenzie)

McKenzie’s work reconnecting the Yirrkala community with the museum figures led to another collection of prints on display at the Monash Museum.

“Traditionally, string figures were a quick-to-hand form of image-making, which when combined in narrative sequence becomes a kind of writing with pictures,” she said. “They can be used as visual anchors for teaching and learning about the world, the way images are used in preschool.

“Older children, beginning to make the figures themselves, develop fine motor skills and make neural pathways. The designs and/or the order in which they are made is thought to have possibly functioned as a mnemonic device or memory aid in oral tradition societies.”

She continued, “An elder from Galiwinku, told me that when a boy, he had had to learn all the figures in the story of Weti/Wallaby and Murruk/Cockroach as part of his initiation. They were made by both boys and girls. Undoubtedly, a form of training as much as a game.”

Elsewhere around the world

String figures have also been documented for generations among the Inuit and Yu’pik people, and in Hawaii, Papua New Guinea and Japan.

A Canadian Arctic explorer, D. Jenness, wrote of the string figures there among Indigenous people in the 1920s, describing the strong beliefs among many that the games should only be played in winter. 

Darja Hoenigman published an article about string figures among the Sepik community in Papua New Guinea, arguing that the study of string figures offered insight into the culture and language of the people.

In Hawaii, where string figures are known as “hei,” both children and adults create the images, according to research by Dr. Taupōuri Tangarō and Kilia Purdy.

For Begay, in Minnesota, string games are an enduring part of her culture.

She said her family and children have encouraged her to continue with string games. As a former elementary teacher who now teaches high-school equivalency classes at Red Lake Nation College in Minnesota, she uses string games in her classroom.

“As an educator, I appreciate all the aspects of learning that stem from string games,” she said.

“It involves language, sensory, motor skills, memory, math, seasons, Navajo language, culture, not to mention a bit of humor in some of the stories.”

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