String figures are an exceedingly old tradition all over the world – basically once people developed string they started playing with it. There are complicated string figure repertoires from Japan, the Arctic, Europe, and all over the Pacific – particularly in Nauru.
I want to thank the University of Victoria for once again giving me access to their books on Nauru – they shipped out to me The String Figures of Nauru Island by Honor Maude. Maude was one of the leading recorders of traditional string figures across the Pacific, and her name comes up frequently on other sources about string figures – unsurprisingly, there is a whole scene today about the culture, math, and technique of this pastime.
Nauru, in fact, traditionally had one of the most complex string figure scenes – immensely complex figures made with groups of people and long strings, often with new ones created in competitions, and accompanied by chants and stories. Many have moves and sequences that are only found on Nauru. Maude collected many of these in the 30s, including detailed instructions and accompanying chants in Nauruan, with translations. These records, published in this book, are a valuable backstop to bolster the art – especially as sadly, many of older generations who had a deep knowledge of Nauruan string figures passed away during WWII. The string figures remain a very important symbol for Nauruans – they’re printed on Nauru’s Olympic uniforms, and available incorporated into streetwear.
I decided to give some of these a go – I used to make string figures a lot when I was a kid, and I still have the muscle memory to do a quick Jacob’s Ladder, but WOW, even with detailed instructions both in the book and backup videos and instructions from string figure websites, these are HARD. Oh, me with the confidence of a novice! I was only able to make some of the easiest and basic figures. These are incredibly complex and refined figures, and definitely will take more practice than trying to google with my nose so I don’t lose my loops!
There are also tutorials online for some Nauruan figures, such as the “Administration Staffs” figure – invented in 1938 by Simon Quanijo and Ijauwe and recorded in Maude’s book. This video tutorial should give you a sense of just how tricky even a comparatively easy Nauruan figure can be, if you want to take a kick at it yourself!