Time Ball

on Sunday, April 15, 2007

Time Ball at Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C.
(Photo by LGS)

Vivian Harrison "Stu Yat"
A lot of cultures depend on a strong oral tradition to pass their stories, their wisdom and their history from generations to generations. I came across a very interesting tradition called the "time ball" which is practiced by the Yakama (pronounced YACK-uh-maw) tribe of Washington State, USA.

In the past much of the tribe's history was passed down from generation to generation by the women of the tribe using an oral tradition known as the time ball. New brides used hemp twine to record their life history starting with courtship. They tied different knots into the twine for days and weeks and added special beads for significant events.

They then rolled the twine into a ball known as the "ititamat," which means "counting the days" or "counting calendar." The ball of twine grew in size as time passed and as events occurred. The women would sometimes divide the twine into 25-year lengths to make it more manageable. When the women were very old, they could use the knots and beads of their time balls to recall not only what happened in their lives but when the events occurred. They could easily recount when their children were born, when they moved away, and other major experiences. When a woman died, her "ititamat" or time ball was buried with her. (Source:Bonnie M. Fountain)

I found this to be a fascinating way of recording and recalling one's life history. I can imagine the privilege and the wonder of sitting by a camp fire and having someone untwine their time ball and share orally the story of their life; what every bead, stone or knot represented and meant to them.

The Time Ball which is shown in the picture is a replica was done by Vivian Harrison who is a well known tribal historian, storyteller and artist of the Yakama peoples. Here is another time ball by Delsie Selam and it represents two years of her life from 1995 to 1997.

I am trying to imagine what my ititamat would look like. What events of my life would I chose to record on it and what choice of bead or stone would I use and why? At a birth of a child, would I use a seed instead? Would my ititamat be full of colorful memories or will it just mark the passing of time? What would your time ball look like and what memories would it record?

*The Yakama's time ball brings to mind, the Incas. They had no alphabet but apparently ran their empire, recording history, issueing directives and laws and maintaining records of crops and supplies by a complex system of knots on string. A more modern connection may lie in the current theory of physicists that the universe consists of "strings". It is a concept that I find hard to understand but which seems to fit so nicely with the tradition of the time ball - a lifetime measured and recorded on a string.


geewits said...

Ooooh, I like how you linked the time balls, made of string, with string theory. I love string theory. I would not have thought to put the two together. Ancient cultures and modern technology keep meeting up, as with acupuncture. Acupuncture was scoffed at in the U.S. in the 70's and 80's and is now seen as a legitimate medical treatment.

Anonymous said...

Wow, this is a though-provoking post. I stopped for a moment to reflect back on my life and then I wondered, did these women document bad times, let's say they were mistreated by a family member, or maybe she had been raped, etc; were things like that documented? The reason I ask is, you know, when they took their time balls out to tell a grandchild about each moment documented, that might not be something they would want to talk about. Like I said, it was a thought-provoking post. :) Thanks for sharing.



Jo said...

Omigosh, that is so interesting. My daughter studied linguistics when she was getting her Masters in Speech Pathology, and she studied how the Aboriginal cultures in Canada kept their stories alive through song because the government stopped letting them speak their own languages. I love this idea of the time ball.


Janice Thomson said...

How very fascinating LGS...and how wonderful it would be to listen to someone's events as they unwound a ball of yarn!
I took an online course at the University of Oregon in Cosmogony. Here is a page that explains the String Theory for anyone interested:
(This goes altogether without a space between)
I found the theory quite fascinating and was glad I took it.

meggie said...

I found this post very interesting. I love to think of the traditions of different peoples of the planet.
Also interesting to wonder if they used the same bead or colour for the birth of a child or children. It seems a shame the time ball was buried with the creator.

JR's Thumbprints said...

Neat oral tradition by the Yakama. Understandably, some ititimats would be larger than others.

Anonymous said...

Thats really neat, I've enver heard of such a thing. My time ball would probably be pretty boring though! Not much happens around here!

Becky Wolfe said...

Very interesting LGS! Always something to learn when I come here. I wonder too about my own time ball, and I wonder, if they went thru a rough time, would they wish they could remove sections & blip over that part of their history. I know in my time ball I wish I could, but what doesn't kill us makes us stronger!

Tai said...

What an ingenious form of memory!

.Tom Kapanka said...

Michigan is full of Native Indian lore and some surviving tribes. Some attend our school. I love reading about their culture.
Great post.
I'd value your input (and that of your readers) on a post you triggered in my mind a while back: "Why Bloggers Blog"
Have a good week.

Drizel said...

ghee me, that is lovely....such a kewl thing to do:)

CS said...

That is interesting. I can imagine some elderly woman telling her story with each bead, but glossing over the really bad things and maybe choosing not to reveal some of the most personal things. Kind of like a blog!

Lone Grey Squirrel said...

some "new" concepts are actually "old" ones that have come to their time in the light.

Interesting question. I honestly do not know but I always imagine that their lives in the past were very tough and they were also tough as a result and I imagine they would have recorded bad incidents as well as it is part of life. Maybe someone reading this could help.

I would have enjoyed learning about oral traditions. The time ball is an interesting twist to the usual story though.

"as they unwound a ball of yarn". Is this what they mean by telling a yarn? Wow. More people know about the string theory than I thought! And you actually studied it! Fascinating.

Thanks for visiting and leaving a comment. I would love too learn more about their choice of beads for different occassions as well.

I am still amazed by your variety of extraordinary jobs. Can you imagine marking them off on your ititamat? Your limosine driving days, marked off by a gold plated key, perhaps?

your family is far from boring! They alone should decorate your ball with all kinds of shiny beads.

as I replied to ellie (above), I'd like to think that they would keep the sad or dark stuff in as they recognise life consist of both good and bad times.

I think so too.

Thanks for your comment. I will go over to your new post and comment but being a shy squirrel, I will let others have a good whack at the topic first. See ya soon.

I envy you. You are about to embark on a big adventure and you'll be making memories for a lifetime. I am excited for you. Keep safe though and have fun. Have memories that you'll enjoy telling your children one day.....or us other bloggers! :)

exactly! Like a blog! In fact, I was visualising a virtual ititamat program on a computer with each bead a journal or blog entry. Computers meet tradition. Haha.

Dave said...

What a facinating story! It is amazing how civilizations our the past past find such unique ways to record their history. From Incas to Egyptians to the the native americans... Amazing

Tracey said...

We just drove through Yakima the other day. Dry, dusty area. Love the time ball tradition, though! May have to give something like that a try =)

Open Grove Claudia said...

Boy that's cool. It's funny because I cannot imagine spending the TIME on my life in that way. I guess I'm classic USA - eh?

Thanks for sharing some of the world!

Lone Grey Squirrel said...

if they had computers then, perhaps they would be blogging?! :)

thanks for visiting and leaving your mark here. I am tempted to do a time ball too but will probably procrastinate. Hope you'll do better.

I like the simple imagery of life as a length of string. I'm sure you measure life in a different way. Perhaps by the number of bee hives you have had? :)

Odat said...

Wow...I love this concept...and imagining what mine would look like...I liked CS's comment about it being an ancient blog....
Mine would consist of every color of the rainbow...shining!!!!

nancycle said...

Too cool.

I think I'll start one.

Anonymous said...

You are mistaken. I can prove it.

Lisa CR said...

I just saw this two days ago in DC and was so taken by the idea! I googled it to learn more. I really enjoyed your post! Thank you!

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