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by William Tomkins


Much deserved credit is due the Plains Indians for having developed and perpetuated the Indian sign language. So much credit has been given them in this regard that the language has been commonly known as the sign language of the Plains Indians, by which title, in keeping with general usage, it is referred to on the title page of this work. In as much, however, as investigation has served to indicate that the language has other and more remote origin, the author has made something of a hobby of research along this line and is pleased to freely offer his findings, for such conclusion as more capable students may determine.

Some authorities contend that because gesture is practically unknown among the present Indians of the Southwest, that it was never known in that region.

This alone has been enough to stimulate the author to research along this line, if only in a spirit of fairness, and we offer our findings for the consideration of the jury of those who shall peruse these pages.

Every record of the landing of Columbus tells of how they communicated with the Indians by signs. The records of all early explorers have information of this nature. It is contended that these general statements are true of all parts of the world, therefore the task devolves of proving by research and deduction that the North American signs comprised a more perfect language and were the forerunner of the sign language contained herein. Let us take for example the story of the landing of Cabrillo in San Diego Bay in September, 1542. A free translation of the visit, contained in the U. S. Geographic Report of 1879, reads as follows:

"And the following day, in the morning, there came to the ship three large Indians, and by signs they said that there were traveling in the interior men like us, with beards and clothes and armed like those of the ships, and they made signs that they carried cross-bows and swords, and made gestures with the right arm as if they were throwing lances, and went running in a posture as if riding on horseback, and made signs that they killed many of the native Indians, and that for this they were afraid. This people are well disposed and advanced; they go covered with the skins of animals."

In Coronado's Journal, 1540, speaking of the Tonkawa, or Comanche, tribes that inhabited the district now known as Western Texas, he states:

"That they were very intelligent is evident from the fact that although they conversed by means of signs, they made themselves understood so well that there was no need of an interpreter." . . . "They are kind people and not cruel, they are faithful, they are able to make themselves very well understood by means of signs."

Garrick Mallery, of the Smithsonian Institute, said in 1879 that though some suggest a Spanish origin of sign, there is ample evidence that the Spaniards met signs in their early explorations north of and in the northern parts of Mexico, and availed themselves of them, but did not invent them. He said it is also, believed by some authorities that the elaborate system of picture writing of Mexico was founded on gesture signs.

Dr. Wm. H. Corbusier, Surgeon U. S. Army, a deep student of Indian affairs, said in 1878:

"The traditions of the Indians point towards the South as the direction from which the sign language came." "The Comanches acquired it in Mexico." "The Plains Indians did not invent it.

Dr. Francis H. Atkins, Surgeon U. S. Army, in his early writings over fifty years ago, alludes to the effect of the Spanish, or rather the "lingua Mexicana," upon all the Southern tribes as well as upon some of those to the North, by which "Recourse to signs is now rendered less necessary."

Rev. J. 0. Dorsey contended fifty years ago that the Poncas in Inratho Territory never saw sign language until they were sent south to that district.

Cabeca de Vaca in 1528 said that the Indians of Tampa Bay were active in the use of signs, and in his journeying for eight subsequent years through Texm and Mexico, remarked that he passed through many dissimilar tongues, but that he questions and received the answers of the Indians by signs "Just as if they spoke our language and we theirs."

Ruxton, in his "Adventures in Mexico and the Rocky Mountains," (New York, 1848), sums up his experiences with regard to the southwestern tribes so well as to require quotation.

"The language of signs is so perfectly understood in the Western country, and the Indians themselves are such admirable sign talkers, that, after a little use, no difficulty whatever exists in carrying on a conversation by such a channel; and there are few mountain men who are at a loss in thoroughly understanding and making themselves intelligible by signs alone, although they neither speak or understand a worn, of the Indian tongue."

Mr. Ben Clark, the skillful interpreter at Fort Reno, stated:

"The Cheyennes think the sign language originated with the Kiowas, who brought it from Mexico."

Col. Richard I. Dodge, U. S. Army, considered in 1875, through an experience of over 30 studious years among the American Indians, to be an authority, said:

"The Plains Indians believe that the sign language was invented by the Kiowas" (who lived to the Southward). "It is certain that the Kiowas are more universally proficient than any other Plains tribe."

In Bossu's "Travels through that part of North America formerly called Louisiana" (Forster's translation, London, 1771), an account is given of a party who remained with them two years and "Conversed in their pantomimes with them."

In the report of Fremont's expedition of 1844 special and repeated is made to the expertness of the Pitites in signs, also regarding a band of Indian. near the summit of the Sierra Nevada, and a band of "Digger" Indians encountered on a tributary of the Rio Virgen who were likewise well versed in signs.

Ernest Thompson Seton says that he found sign language, many years ago, to be a daily necessity when traveling among the natives of New Mexico, also that in Western Manitoba and Montana he found it used among the various Indian tribes as a common language.

Dr. E. B. Tyler, the eminent authority who wrote "Researches into the early history of mankind," after a lifetime of study stated that "The same signs serve as a medium of converse from Hudson Bay to the Gulf of Mexico."

Many of the Indians, in a variety of tribes, have stated that in former times the sign language was the one common and universal means of community between all the tribes of American Indians who spoke different vocal languages. As he expressed it, "All the old people in all the tribes used it."

Little Raven, the former head chief of the Southern Arapahoes, said in regard to the use of gestures:"'I have met Comanches, Kiowas, Apaches, Caddos, Gros Ventres, Snakes, Crows, Pawnees, Osages, Arickarees, Nez Perces, Cherokees, Choctaws, Chickasaws, Sacs and Foxes, Pottawattomies, and other tribes whose vocal languages, like those of the tribes named, we did not understand, but we communicated freely in sign language."

"The summer after President Lincoln was killed we had a grand of all the tribes to the cast and south of us. Twenty-five different tribes met near old Fort Abercrombie on the Wichita River. The Caddos had a different sign if for horse, and also for moving, but the rest were made the same by all the tribes."

Chief Joseph of the Nez Perces said that his tribe learned the language from the Blackfeet, some 80 years earlier, and yet it is a well-known fact that these Indians used gesture speech long before that time.

Nichelle, chief of the Pend d'Oreilles, said: "All the tribes talk in signs when they meet if they cannot understand each other's vocal language. The Blackfeet, Crows, Flatheads, Kootenays, Peleuses, Cayuses, Pend d'Oreilles, Coeur d'Alenes, Spokanes, Nez Perces, Yakimas and others all make the same signs.

"When I was a boy my grandfather told me that a long time ago when two tribes met that did not speak the same vocal language, they always talked in signs."

In the record of Major Long's expedition, of which he wrote in 1822, it tells how on his way down the Mississippi a number of strange Indians came into his camp, and Mr. Nohn, who was present, addressed them in such of the languages as he was acquainted with and was not understood. He then conversed by certain signs. These were fully understood by the Indians and were answered in like manner. Directly a conversation ensued in which not a word was spoken. "This," said Nolin, " is a universal language common to the Western Tribes."

Dr. W. Matthews and Dr. W. C. Bateler, who made comparisons of the signs reported by the Prince of Wied in 1832, proved the remarkable degree of permanency of the signs, most of which have persisted unchanged in their essentials.

In the report of Major Long's expedition of 1819 among a number of scattered Indian tribes it states that being ignorant of each others' languages, "many of them when they met would communicate by means of signs, without difficulty or interruption."

Michaelius, writing in 1628, says of the Algonquins on or near the Hudson River: "For purposes of trading as much was done by signs with the thumb and fingers as by speaking."

There is some recorded testimony and evidence of extensive early use of gesture signs by several tribes of Iroquoian and Algonkian families, although their advanced social condition worked against its continuance. The gradual decadence of signs used by our Indians in general arose from their general acquaintance with the English language.

The Rev. Edward Jacker, in 1878, contributed to the Bureau of American Ethnology valuable information upon the use of gesture language in earlier times by the Ojibways of Lake Superior.

From remoter parts of North America we learn, prior to 1879, from Mr. J. W. Powell, Indian Superintendent, of the use of sign language among the Kutine; and from Mr. James Lenihan, Indian Agent to the Selish, of their using signs; both tribes of British Columbia.

The pueblo of Taos is, of all the pueblos, the farthest east and north, and has at all times been the connecting link between the Plains Indians and the Desert Indians.

Intermarriage was frequent, and as a result the sign language, if it had not been there already, would naturally have been disseminated through the entire Southwest. Two widely separated historic incidents illustrate the use to which natural sign language had been put when white men first met Indians. When Captain John Smith and some of his followers had their first conference with Indians, after a skirmish in which the Indians had been repulscd with the loss of their idol, the record says:

Captain John Smith, stepping forward, stood face to face with the dark-skinned messenger, and BY DINT OF MANY GESTURES made himself understood.

This was the message he made the Indians understand "by dint of gestures:"

"If you will send six unarmed men to load my boat with provisions, I will return your idol and give you beads and copper, and will be your friend. Say this to your comrades while we await their answer."

On the western side of the continent, up in Oregon, French traders met the Indians many years later. Telling of the first meeting, the chief of the Nez Perces said: "Our people could not talk with these white-faced men, but they used signs, which all people understand."

Universal Indian Sign Language






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Last modified: October 15, 2016.