Plains Indian Sign Language
by Todd D. Glover
Evidence suggests that Plains Indian Sign Language was in wide spread use during the Mountain Man era. George Droulliard, a hunter and interpreter for the Lewis and Clark expedition made much use of the sign talk until the expedition reached the Columbia river based tribes who were not familiar with it. In 1823, Major Stephen Long published a small booklet on sign language based on his explorations among the plains tribes. Inter-tribal communications through hand gesturing was noted by explorers as early as 1535.
In his book, Indian Sign Language, William Tomkins explains, " 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." (Written before ASL became a standard of communication for the deaf.)
Indian Sign Language was developed among the plains tribes and practiced from the Saskatchewan River to Mexico. It does not seem to have spread in usage among non-plains tribes. The most logical reason for this being that the plains tribes were highly nomadic and often came into contact with tribes of differing language families. After the introduction of the horse this became even more of a factor. A means of universal communication became evident and was developed.
The use of a silent means of communication was also useful to warriors in combat and to hunters while stalking and in general communication over long distances on the plains.
As the Euro-American trappers moved among the tribes in pursuit of beaver, it became quite natural for them to learn the sign talk. Sign talk could be learned much easier than the tribal language and again had the advantage that once learned could be used to communicate with any number of tribes the trappers came in contact with.
Indian Sign Language is not difficult to learn. The signs are often imitation of acts, qualities and attributes, it is a description of a thing by color, shape or what it does. Almost all signs are made with the right hand. All articles and small qualifying adjectives are left out entirely, verbs and nouns alone carry the message. There is great beauty in sign language when properly performed with round sweeping gestures which are smooth and rhythmically performed.
Today there is a renewed interest in Indian Sign Language among historical re-enactors. It is an elective requirement for the American Mountain Men and is an elective for the Indian Lore Merit Badge by the Boy Scouts of America.
William Tomkins book, Indian Sign Language continues to be the "Bible" on the subject, augmented nicely by W.P. Clarks The Indian Sign Language.
A set of "flash cards" and a video have recently been produced and can be obtained by contacting: Larry Pendelton Route 1 Box 87 Edgewood, TX 75117