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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.
Bilateral & Radial Symmetry
Old Dominion University – OEG Sciences
Math is Fun
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.
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.”
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!