Mountain Men and Life in the Rocky

Subject Guide


Mountain West

Malachite’s Big Hole

Indian Sign Language: 

The Plains Indians developed a sign language composed of gestures made almost entirely with the hands and fingers with which they were able to communicate facts, feelings and opinions of considerable complexity.  The gestures of this sign language were nearly universal from the northern Plains Indians to as far south as those Indians living within the territories of Mexico.  This allowed virtually any Indian, regardless of tribe or language to communicate freely with any other Indian throughout most of the Rocky Mountain West.  Sign language is elemental, basic and logical - easily learned, and straightforward in expressing ideas. 

Fluency in sign language was an important skill for any mountain man. Because the mountain men traveled extensively, often passing through the territories of multiple tribes within a single season, it was usually not possible to have an interpreter for every language which might be encountered.  Sign language solved this problem. 

Two books have been published for instruction in the use of Indian Sign Language.  These books are Indian Sign Language; by William Tomkins, and The Indian Sign Language by W.P.(Wiliam Phylo) Clark.  A review of both books, including a discussion of the strengths and shortcomings of each can be found here.  

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