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By William Tomkins

When a boy, from 1884 to 1894, the author lived on the edge of the Sioux Indian Reservation in Dakota Territory, located at Fort Sully, Cheyenne Agency, Pierre, and surrounding sections.  He worked on the cow range and associated continuously with Indians.  He learned some of the Sioux language. and made a study of sign.   Since then, for many years, the interest has continued, and all known authorities on 'sign have been studied, as well as continued investigations with Blackfoot, Cheyenne, Sioux, Arapahoe, and other Indians of recognized sign-talking ability.

Of later years this effort has been inspired by the fact that there does not exist today any publication in print that can readily be obtained, covering exclusively the so-called Universal Indian Sign Language of the Plains Indians of North America. 

There is a sentiment connected with the Indian Sign Language that attaches to no other.   It is probably the first American language.  It is the first and only American universal language.  It may be the first universal language produced by any people.   It is a genuine Indian language of great antiquity.  It has a beauty and imagery possessed by few, if any, other languages.  It is the foremost gesture language that the world has ever produced.

The author has lectured on Indian problems to many audiences, and at all times the keenest interest was shown in sign language demonstrations, and he has been requested, hundreds of times, to make the record permanent, and to thereby preserve and perpetuate the original American language which otherwise is fast passing away.

This is shown by the fact that in 1885 Lewis F. Hadley, at that time a foremost authority on sign, claimed that as a result of extensive investigation he had determined that there were over 110,000 sign-talking Indians in the United States.  Today there is a very small percentage of this number, due to the inroads of modern education, and many of our Indians, with college and university training, can speak better English than they can talk sign.

This language was not created by anybody living today.  If it belongs to anybody it belongs to Americans, and it is for the purpose of having it carried on by the youth of the United States that this little volume is compiled.

Very few works on the Indian Sign Language have ever been published.  The first of importance was by Major Stephen H. Long in 1823, and gave about 100 signs.  It is long since out of print. in 1880 and 1881 Lieut.-Col. Garrick Mallery, writing for the Bureau of American Ethnology of the Smithsonian Institute, produced two valuable works, entitled, Gesture Signs and Signals of the North American Indians, and Sign Language Among the North American Indians.  These were partially illustrated and are now out of print.

The next, and by far the most authoritative, work on Indian Sign Language was by Captain Win. Philo Clark, U. S. Army.  He was with the army in the Indian country from 1875 to 1880, and made a deep study of sign, with the result that in 1880 he was detailed by his commanding general to devote his time exclusively to the production of a book on same.  He worked steadily on its preparation until 1884, when he died.   The work was published in 1885, a small edition, and is now out of print and extremely difficult to obtain.  It was not illustrated.  This being America's leading authority on Indian sign, and differentiating as to the true Indian and deaf and dumb codes, the author has consulted it extensively in checking against his personal knowledge and studies extending over many years.

In 1887, 1890 and 1893, three works on "Primary Gestures ... .. Sign Talk," and "Indian Sign Talk," were produced by Lewis F. Hadley, a missionary in the Indian Territory. The latter was the more important, and was produced in an edition of but 75 copies.  Of these but few copies are known to exist.  There is one in the Smithsonian Institute, one in the Library of Congress, one in the Metropolitan Library, New York, one owned by Ernest Thompson Seton, and one in the library of Prof. J. C. Elsom of the University of Wisconsin, and through the kindness of Prof. Elsom the author possesses a photostatic copy.  Next to the work by Capt. Clark, this is the foremost contribution to the study of Indian Sign Language, particularly as it contains several hundred graphic illustrations.

In 1918, Ernest Thompson Seton, the noted author of animal stories, compiled a splendid work, 282 pages and about 1700 signs, profusely illustrated.  The work was named "Sign Talk", and it does not pretend to adhere to Indian signs but includes many desirable signs of the deaf and dumb, and other sources, comprising a very fine work, of value to any library. 

Owing to the idiomatic form of the language there are certain fundamental differences which must be remembered.  Every interrogation is made either wholly or in part by the question sign. Instead of saying "Where are you going?" the signs would be, QUESTION, YOU, GOING.  Instead of "What do you want?" the signs would be QUESTION, YOU, WANT.

The sign for "question" covers the words WHAT, WHERE, WHY and WHEN.  It is made to attract attention, to ask, to inquire, to examine.

The old-time Indian never used the terms "Good morning," or "Good evening," but had his own forms of greeting.  The Sioux vocal language uses the term "How Coula?" meaning "How do you do, my friend?"

The modern educated Indian uses the terms of the white man: so we believe that in this age the use of the terms, "Good morning" and "Good evening", should not be out of place in talking sign between Whites or Indians, particularly as these words exist in sign language and are generally understood.

In sign language it is not customary to ask "What is your name?" because it has a different way of asking this question, viz: "What are you called?" the signs for which are QUESTION, YOU, CALLED.

In speaking of the age of a person, or of past or future time, the general custom is to say, "So many winters."

For time of day, make sign for SUN, holding hand toward the point in the heavens where the sun is at the time indicated.  To specify a certain length of time during the day, indicate space on sky over which the sun passes.

Time is reckoned by the Indians as follows: Days, by nights or sleeps; months, by moons; and years, by winters.  Present time is expressed by Indians by the sign NOW, and also by the sign TODAY, while occasionally, for emphasis, both signs are used.

What is understood to be the first person singular, is indicated by pointing to oneself.  The plural WE is made by the signs ME and ALL.  YOU, ALL, means YE; while HE, ALL means THEY.

Gender is shown by adding the signs MAN or WOMAN.

Past tense is shown by adding LONG TIME.

Such words or articles, as A, THE, AN, IT, etc., are not used in sign language.   The syntax or sentence construction is naturally elemental and simple.  The verb is not placed as with us, but generally between the subject and the object.

One very wide difference between the Indian Sign Language and the signs used by deaf and dumb, is shown in the word THINK.  The originators of the Indian signs thought that thinking or understanding was done with the heart, and made the sign "drawn from the heart".  Deaf mutes place extended fingers of the right hand against the forehead, to give the same meaning. 

The deaf use a great deal of facial contortion and grimace.  The Indian seldom uses facial expression, but maintains a composed and dignified countenance, the signs being sufficient of themselves.

There have been various confusing tribal differences of gesture in regard to TIME, present, past and future, and we have therefore recorded the most logical.  See TIME, LONG TIME, AFTER, BEFORE, BEHIND, FUTURE and PAST. 

For time of day make the sign for SUN, holding hand at point in sky where sun is supposed to be represented.  Indians estimate days by SLEEPS, or NIGHTS, months by MOONS, and years by WINTERS.  In reckoning the age of a person the custom is to say "so many WINTERS."'

With the passage of time some gestures have changed, as can be readily seen by the following.  Before the introduction of the coffee-mill among the Indians, coffee was represented as a grain, or, more elaborately, by describing the process of preparing and drinking the beverage.  The little coffee-mill killed off these gestures at once, and the motion made, as though turning the crank of the mill to grind the parched berry, is today understood as meaning COFFEE by practically all the plains Indians.

While not generally thought of as such, it is nevertheless a fact, that there is one composite group of over twenty million citizens of the United States who use a wonderfully comprehensive sign language every day, in fact could not get along without it, and. furthermore. they must use it or be guilty of violation of law.  I refer to the gestures made by the great army of automobile drivers to indicate "Right turn," "Left turn," "Stop," etc.

Clark says: "It is very difficult to describe the most simple movements of the hands in space, so that a person who had never seen the movements would, by following the descriptions, make the correct motions."  In order to offset the possibility of mistake in this regard, I have herein illustrated practically all of the principal or root signs, in a manner which it is hoped will be clear to all.

On account of the lucid explanation shown in the cuts, it has been found possible to make verbal description very brief, thereby preventing the confusion which results from lengthy details.

It should be remembered that this is in large measure a skeleton language, because synonyms in general are covered by the basic word.  For instance, the word ABANDONED means DIVORCED; THROWN AWAY, DISPLACED; DESERTED, FORSAKEN.


Some slight liberties in spelling have been taken by the author, in order to simplify pronunciation.  For instance, the word representing lodge, the conventional tent home, correctly speaking should be spelled TIPI: whereas phonetically the pronunciation is TEEPEE.  We have therefore used the latter spelling.

Sign language is so faithful to nature and so natural in its expression that it is not probable that it will ever die.  It has a practical utility, and should not be looked upon merely as a repetition of motions to be memorized from a limited list, but as a cultivated art, founded upon principles which can be readily applied by travelers.

Sign language may be used to advantage at a distance, which the eye can reach but not the ear, and still more frequently when silence or secrecy is desired.

The author's thanks are due to a number of people who have helped him with the sign language.  One of the first of these was William Fielder, a noted interpreter at Cheyenne Agency, Dakota; to Muzza Humpa (Iron Moccasin), and Cawgee Tonka (Big Crow), two Sioux living near Fort Sully, Dakota, and in general to many other Indians with whom he was acquainted at Cheyenne Agency, Pierre, Fort Pierre, and many places on the Sioux Reservation from 1885 to 1894. Mr. R. C. Block of San Diego, California, a well-educated Cheyenne Indian and a fine sign-talker, has checked my manuscripts and passed favorably upon them.

In particular I wish to thank Mr. J. L. Clark, a Blackfoot Indian sculptor now located at Glacier Park, Montana, and who with great patience and kindness has gone over the entire language with me.  Mr. Clark has the misfortune to be deaf and dumb, and this has developed him greatly as a sign talker.  He is America's foremost Indian sculptor, and carves bears and other wild animals from blocks of wood, true to life.

Every author of a work on sign language in the past 100 years has emphasized the importance of illustration of same, therefore, realizing this fact, I have given much time to an endeavor to secure a capable artist.  I have been most fortunate in securing the services of Mr. A. J. Stover of San Diego, an artist of wide experience and ability, and graduate of the Cleveland Art School.  To his earnest devotion to the work much credit for the book is due, and he certainly has my best thanks.  All of the sketches were posed by the author.

I have held back one thought for conclusion, and it is this: The beauty of Sign talk depends upon the manner of making the gestures.  Movements should not be angular or jerky, but should rather be rounded and sweeping in their rendition.  It is inspiring, and a thing of beauty, to witness a sign conversation between two capable Indian sign talkers.  They are living in many parts of our country and should be cultivated wherever found.

Every sign in this work is a true Indian sign.  Nothing has been borrowed from the deaf or from other sources, the compiler having adhered strictly to Indian origins.   This, of necessity, makes for a briefer book than would otherwise be possible, but a conscientious effort has been made to make the book exactly what it purports to be, viz: the Indian Sign Language.

It is the most earnest hope of the author that this little work will so kindle enthusiasm in the breasts of thousands of boys and girls throughout the world, that the future, through this medium will develop millions of young people who will be able to talk sign language with as great facility, grace and beauty as it was ever presented by any Indian in past time. This is the hope of the founder of Scouting, Sir Robert Baden Powell, Chief Scout of the World, who recently wrote to the author as follows:

25, Buckingham Palace Road,

My Dear Mr. Tomkins:

Thank you so much for your very kind thought of me and for sending me a copy of your Sign Language book.  I had already commended it to Scouts in other countries in the hope that Scouts all over the world will take up the idea and use it as a common medium for bringing them all together in closer comradeship.

If it helps to bring about greater world friendship and understanding and avoidance of war your research into the Indian way of communication will have been well worthwhile, and you will have done a great thing for the world.

I cordially wish you every success and with many thanks and all good wishes, Believe me,

Yours truly,


This work is dedicated to my wife, Grace M. Tomkins, whose constant interest and kindness have made possible and a pleasure the studies and research of years, and jointly with her it is dedicated to the youth of the world, in the belief that through the study of this subject there may be developed in all countries a multitude of sign talkers as fluent, graceful and rapid as our Indians themselves, and, as Sir Robert hopes, to the general good of humanity.

Universal Indian Sign Language






Additional Information:

Peer- Level Topic Links:
Sign Dictionary ] [ Introductory Notes ] Asking Names ] Moons/Months ] Sign Simplified ] Top 200 Signs ] 40 Native American Signs ] Indian Blessing ] Boy Scout Oath in Sign ] Sentence Formation ] Practice Sentences ] Sign Synonyms ] Telling Directions ] Pictographs ] Pictographic Story ] Correspondence ] Sign&Pictography ] Smoke Signals ] Sign History ] Sign Idioms ] Song "Taps" in Sign ] Troop Meeting ] Council Fire ] Camp Ideas ] Sign Play ] Sign Playlet ] Boy Scout Initiation ] Sign Exercises ] Advanced Students ] Immortality Poem ] Photos ]

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Last modified: October 15, 2016.