Monday, August 1, 2011

Native American Sioux, Crow, Arapaho, Arkira, Blackfeet, Comanche, Shoshone Plains Indian Sign Language

Sign Language On The Plains Indians (Sioux).

Every one talking with another person who speaks a different language will, in his effort to make himself understood, quite surely make some use of signs. Often the signs so used will seem naturally to express the desired idea. Once, a Tonkaway Indian in trying to tell me that all white men were untruthful, put the first two fingers of his right hand, slightly separated, near his mouth and then moved the hand downward and outward, at the same time slightly spreading the fingers. By this he meant to say that white men had two tongues, or were liars. They say one thing and mean another.

While it is natural for all people to use signs to convey meaning, the use of signs will be most frequent where it is a common thing for several people speaking different languages to come into contact. While all American Indians use some gestures, the Plains Indians, who were constantly meeting other tribes, necessarily made much use of them. In fact, a remarkable sign language had grown up among them, whereby Sioux, Crows, Assinaboines, Pani, Arapahoes, Cheyennes, Kiowas, could readily converse upon any subject.

It is not probable that the sign language was invented by any one tribe. Many writers haveclaimed that it was made by the Kiowas. Rather, it grew up of itself among the tribes because gesturing is natural to peoples everywhere.

Deaf-mutes left to themselves always use signs. These signs are of two kinds. They either picture or copy some idea, thing, or action, or they point out something. It is interesting to find that the gestures made by deaf-mutes and Indians are often the same. So true is this, that deaf-mutes and Indians quite readily understand each other's signs. Parties of Indians in Washington for business are sometimes taken to the Deaf-Mute College to see if the two—Indians and deaf-mutes—can understand each other. While they cannot understand every sign, they easily get at each other's meaning. One time a professor from a deaf-mute school, who knew little of Indians and nothing at all of Indian languages, had no difficulty while traveling through Indian country in understanding and in making himself understood by means of signs.

Sign Language on the Plains. (After Mallery.)
We will look at a few examples of Indian signs. Try and make them from the description, and see whether you think they are natural or not. The signs for animal names usually describe or picture some peculiarity of the animal.
Badger.—The right hand is held with the back up, fingers extended, touching and pointing to the front, in front and to the right of the body. This shows the height of the animal. Then the first a
]second fingers are slightly separated (the rest of the hand being closed) and drawn from the nose upward over the top of the head. This shows the striped face. The two hands are then held in front of the body, with fingers curved, the backs up, and drawn as if pawing or scratching. This has reference to the digging of the animal. The complete sign thus gives the size, the most striking mark, and the habit of the animal.

Beaver.—Hold out the left hand, with the back up, pointing to the right and front, in front of the body, with the lower part of the arm horizontal; cross the right hand under it so that the back of the right hand is against the left palm. Then leaving the right wrist all the time against the left palm, briskly move the right hand up and down so it shall slap against the left palm. The beaver has a broad, flat tail, with which he strikes mud or water. The sign imitates this action.
Buffalo.—Close the hands except the forefingers; curve these; place the hands then against the sides of the head, near the top and fairly forward. These curved forefingers resemble the horns of the buffalo and so suggest that animal.

Dog.—Place the right hand, with the back up, in front of and a little lower than the left breast: the first and second fingers are extended, separated, and point to the left. The hand is then drawn several inches to the right, horizontally. I am sure you never would guess how this came to mean dog. You remember how the tent poles are dragged by ponies when camp is moved? Well, before the Indians had horses as now, the dogs used to have to drag the poles. This sign represents the dragging of the poles.
Skunk.—The skunk is a little animal, but it has rather a complicated sign. (a) The height is indicated as in the case of the badger. (b) Raise the right hand, with the back backward, a little to the right of the right shoulder; all the fingers are closed except the forefinger, which is curved; the hand is then moved forward several inches by gentle jerks. This represents the curious way in which the broad, bushy tail is carried and the movement of the animal in walking. (c) Raise right hand toward the face, with the two first fingers somewhat separated, to about the chin. Then move it upward until the nose passes between the separated finger tips. This means smell. (d) Hold both hands, closed with backs up, in front of the body, the two being at the same height. Move them down and outward, at the same time opening them. This is done rather briskly and vigorously. It means bad. Thus in the sign for skunk we give size, character of tail and movement, and bad smell.
There are of course signs for the various Indian tribes, and some of these are interesting because they usually present some striking characteristic of the tribe named.

Crow.—Make with the arms the motion of flapping wings.

Arapaho.—The fingers of one hand touch the breast in different parts to indicate the tattooing of that part in points.

Arikara.—often called corn-eaters, are represented by imitating the shelling of corn, by holding the left hand still, the shelling being done with the right.

Blackfeet.—Pass the flat hand over the outer edge of the right foot from the heel to beyond the toe, as if brushing off dust.

Comanche and Shoshone.—Imitate with the hand or forefinger the crawling motion of the snake.

Flathead.—The hand is raised and placed against the forehead.

We will only give one more example. The sign for crazy is as follows:—

Slightly contract the fingers of the right hand without closing it; bring it up to and close in front of the forehead; turn the hand so that the finger tips describe a little circle.

Bad boys sometimes speak of people having wheels in their head. This Indian sign certainly seems to show that the Indian idea of craziness is about the same as the boys'.

Captain Clark wrote a book on the Indian [pg 065]sign language, in which he described great numbers of these curious signs. Lieutenant Mallery, too, made a great collection of signs and wrote a long paper about them. A third gentleman has tried to make type which shall print the sign language. He made more than eight hundred characters. With these he plans to teach the old Indians to read papers and books printed in the signs. He thinks that the Indian can take such a paper, and making the signs which he sees there pictured, he will understand the meaning of the article.

W. P. Clark.—Soldier. Author of Indian Sign Language, which not only is a convenient dictionary of signs, but contains much general information regarding Indians.

Garrick Mallery.—Soldier, ethnologist. Connected with Bureau of Ethnology from its establishment until his death. His most extended papers are: Sign Language among North American Indians, Pictographs of the North American Indians, Picture Writing of the American Indians.

Lewis Hadley.—Inventor of Indian Sign Language type.

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