Time Ball

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.

3 thoughts on “Time Ball”

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