Guest Blog: Symmetry in Alaska Native Design

Over the past six weeks the Department of Ethnology & History at UAMN has hosted a graduate student intern from Indiana University, Purdue University, Indianapolis (IUPUI). Rebekah Ryan is about to earn her MA in Museum Studies. This summer she traveled to Fairbanks to expand her experiences in collections work, working on archival enclosures for artifacts, taking photos of the collections both in the studio and lab, learning how to use the new Arctos database, and undertaking research in the collection. Each year, our intern creates an exhibition at the UAF Rasmuson Library in order to put their collections-based skills to a practical end. Rebekah was intrigued by the UAF Math in a Cultural Context program after a group of elders visited the museum to view objects. She developed the following ideas using our collections to illustrate concepts of symmetry in Alaska Native Design. You can see her exhibit at the Rasmuson Library 4th Floor, near the reference desk. If you want more information on this topic, you can add a comment below.

 


 

“When we make patterns, they must be pleasing to the eye.”

Dora Andrew-Ihrke –Yup’ik teacher (quoting her mother)

What is symmetry? Most of us have an instinctual sense of what symmetry looks or feels like, but it can be difficult to define. Dictionaries define “symmetry” with synonyms: balance, proportion, harmony, consonance. In Western mathematics, “symmetry” is a correspondence in size, form, and arrangement of parts on opposite sides of a plane, line, or point.

When creating things to use and appreciate, people often respond positively to balance: symmetry of design or ideology. This broader definition of symmetry is a common element of Alaska Native designs, from using body measurements to craft custom kayaks and parka decorations, to representing the cycle of the universe.

“The balance of life – the reciprocal relations between animals and humans – requires harmony, carefulness, and keen awareness…. Materials were fashioned into pleasing products that spoke to the spirit world. The spirit world had to be placated, and skillfully crafted products helped accomplish this; objects were made precisely, and with a high level of ingenuity and creativity, these crafts encoded mathematics.”

       – Yup’ik Cosmology to School Mathematics: the Power of Symmetry and Proportional Measuring

Many Alaska Native items were custom-made for their intended owners – symmetry of the tool and its user. One of the ways to do this was to use an individual’s body to make measurements for that item. Over time, the Yup’ik peoples developed a system of anthropomorphic (body) measurements and proportions that would create an agile and dependable kayak, or tailored clothing with symmetrical decorative patterns.

Kayak Measurements:  Courtesy of Kayak Scientific Design and Statistical Analysis

Kayak Measurements: Courtesy of Kayak Scientific Design and Statistical Analysis

Skin sewing has been a fundamental skill for generations of Alaska Native women: sound stitches protected their families during all kinds of weather. Patterns are often unique to a family or person, and when incorporated into clothing, are an important means of communicating identity.

When making a skin-sewn decoration, Yup’ik women have traditionally begun with a square based on an individual’s finger measurements. Once the square was folded along its lines of symmetry to confirm that it was perfect, the square could be divided into other shapes – squares, triangles, parallelograms – even circles.

(Watch videos on the UAF Math in a Cultural Context Website where Yup’ik elder Dora Andrew-Ihrke demonstrates these skills.)

Body Measure – “Knuckle Length” (2008) Ethnomatics Applied to Classrooms in Alaska: Math in a Cultural Context

Body Measure – “Knuckle Length” (2008) Ethnomatics Applied to Classrooms in Alaska: Math in a Cultural Context

Fannie Barr Displays the Interior of the Parka to Show Emily Barr’s Sewing on the Back of the Border. 2006 Photographer: James Magdanz. Courtesy Shared Beringian Heritage Program.

Fannie Barr Displays the Interior of the Parka to Show Emily Barr’s Sewing on the Back of the Border.
2006 Photographer: James Magdanz. Courtesy Shared Beringian Heritage Program.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

While early Alaska Native designers didn’t employ the same conceptual labels for symmetry that are used in Western mathematics, Western concepts can still be illustrated by Alaska Native objects.  The three fundamental types of symmetry are linear, radial, and point. A shape or design has linear symmetry when it can be folded on an imaginary line into two halves that could lie perfectly on top of one another.

Linear Symmetry

Linear Symmetry

When something has radial symmetry, an imaginary line can run through the object, and the object can rotate on that imaginary axis in such a way that the patterns on it will repeat themselves before making a full rotation. Radial symmetry can be present on something round and flat, like a plate, or something spherical, like a ball.

Radial Symmetry

Radial Symmetry

Point symmetry is a bit more complicated to understand. A design displays point symmetry when an element can be flipped 180º over an imaginary point to lie perfectly on the other element.

Point Symmetry

Point Symmetry

Bilateral & Radial Symmetry
Old Dominion University – OEG Sciences
http://www.ocean.odu.edu/~spars001/geology_112/laboratory/session_08/handout.html

Point Symmetry
Math is Fun
http://www.mathsisfun.com/geometry/symmetry-point.html

Tlingit Rattle-Top Basket (0840-0045AB)  This spruce root basket displays examples of linear and rotational symmetry on its side, lid and bottom. The final type of symmetry - point - can also be seen on the side of the basket. The “s” and “z”-shaped design is called the “shaman’s hat”, and the bands on the top and bottom face opposite directions. A black “z” that is diagonal from a black “s” could be flipped up and over an imaginary point between those two figures to lie perfectly on top of that black “s”.

Tlingit Rattle-Top Basket (0840-0045AB)
This spruce root basket displays examples of linear and rotational symmetry on its side, lid and bottom. The final type of symmetry – point – can also be seen on the side of the basket. The “s” and “z”-shaped design is called the “shaman’s hat”, and the bands on the top and bottom face opposite directions. A black “z” that is diagonal from a black “s” could be flipped up and over an imaginary point between those two figures to lie perfectly on top of that black “s”.

While it may seem to be more abstract than literal examples of symmetry, ideological symmetry plays an even more fundamental role in Alaska Native design. This can be seen in balanced representations of male and female forces, and depictions of the cyclical nature of the universe.

Pair of Yup’ik Earrings with the circle-and-dot design (UA70-017-0048AB) These earrings are decorated with the “circle and dot” decoration. A Cup’ik designer drilled the first hole, and used sharpened bone or metal tubes to carve concentric circles. When surrounded by four smaller dots, the circle and dot design has been identified to represent the pathway between the world of the living and the dead, and is associated with spiritual insight.

Pair of Yup’ik Earrings with the circle-and-dot design
(UA70-017-0048AB)
These earrings are decorated with the “circle and dot” decoration. A Cup’ik designer drilled the first hole, and used sharpened bone or metal tubes to carve concentric circles.
When surrounded by four smaller dots, the circle and dot design has been identified to represent the pathway between the world of the living and the dead, and is associated with spiritual insight.

Pair of Kayak Stanchions (UA82-003-0057AB) These kayak stanchions are used to physically and ideologically support a kayaker when he’s in the cockpit. The smiling male face and frowning female face represent the necessary balance of good and bad spirits in the universe; they protect the kayaker as he travels.

Pair of Kayak Stanchions (UA82-003-0057AB)
These kayak stanchions are used to physically and ideologically support a kayaker when he’s in the cockpit. The smiling male face and frowning female face represent the necessary balance of good and bad spirits in the universe; they protect the kayaker as he travels.

The last concept to consider is asymmetry. Symmetry would not exist without an opposite. In fact, Alaska Native designers often intentionally incorporate asymmetry to create interest or highlight significant details. Art historians describe this sort of well-executed design as “balanced asymmetry.”

Athabascan Wall Pocket  (UA64-021-0202) Notice the bilateral and radial symmetry of the foundational flowers and asymmetrical arrangement of the surrounding motifs creates a balanced decoration.

Athabascan Wall Pocket
(UA64-021-0202)
Notice the bilateral and radial symmetry of the foundational flowers and asymmetrical arrangement of the surrounding motifs creates a balanced decoration.

Alaska Native design is vibrant and complex, incorporating symmetrical properties that serve practical, aesthetic, and ideological purposes. Many of these techniques have been perfected over generations, and continue to be integrated into contemporary design.

Want to learn more? Use this guide to explore symmetry in Alaska Native Design throughout the Museum of the North!

Education- Exploring SymmetrySM

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3 thoughts on “Guest Blog: Symmetry in Alaska Native Design

  1. Thomas J. says:

    I loved your article! I myself am half cup’ik Alaskan native, I was wondering if you had any more information that you could help me with understanding what the tribe symbol means. With the lines in the outside of the circle instead of dots. Or if it matters. Thank you again for your time and beautiful article.

  2. Rebekah says:

    Hi Thomas J., I’m glad that you enjoyed it! In the research that I’ve read about circle and dot designs, I haven’t come across an explanation for the “circle and dot with lines” that is used as the Yup’ik and Cup’ik symbol. I imagine that it holds similar meaning to the design I shared here, but I bet community elders would be able to explain it. I suggest that you share your question with them, and/or the Alaska Native Heritage Center in Anchorage (they use that design on promotional materials). Let us know what you find out!

    • AKEthnoGirl says:

      I’d agree with Rebekah about the Alaska Native Heritage Center. When they first were established, their website had a link to explain each of the icons that were selected for the cultural regions. I took a look and can’t find that link anymore. You might also look at the various publications by Ann Fienup-Riordan, who has collaborated with Yup’ik communities for almost 40 years.
      So glad you enjoyed Rebekah’s guest post.

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