Mountain Men and Life in the Rocky

Subject Guide


Mountain West

Malachite’s Big Hole

Two Books about Indian Sign Language are Reviewed and Compared.

In the fur trade of the West and Rocky Mountain region, the use of sign language as a means of communications between trappers, hunters, traders and Indians was common practice.  Some of the earliest journals of explorers and trappers on the plains and in the Rocky Mountains document the use of signs and sign language for communication with plains and mountain Indians.  Lewis and Clark in their journals make mention of the use of sign language, and Droullard appears to have been fluent in the use of sign, at least by the time the expedition reached the headwaters of the Missouri River basin.  In 1811 both Wilson Price Hunt, leader of the Overland Astorians and John Bradbury, a scientist that accompanied the expedition as far as the Mandan villages, mention the use of sign language.

Any re-enactor or living historian who occupies a role in which it would be expected that interactions with Indians would occur should have at least a minimal knowledge and familiarity with Indian sign language.  Two resources for learning sign language, each with its own advantages and disadvantages are discussed fully below.

The Indian Sign Language by W.P.(Wiliam Phylo) Clark  443 pages, 1982 edition, University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln and London.

Clark was an officer in the Calvary at the time of the Sioux and Cheyenne War of 1876-77.  During this conflict he commanded approximately three hundred friendly enlisted Indian Scouts, of Pawnee, Shoshone, Arapahoe, Crow, Sioux and Cheyenne tribes.  Although each of these tribes had its own spoken language, these diverse groups of scouts were able to easily communicate through the use of sign, a fact which greatly impressed Clark.  For the benefits of being able to directly communicate with the men in his command, Clark began his own personal study of sign language at this time.

From 1878-79 and again 1880 Clark continued to be active in the field operations amongst the Indians, including the Cheyenne, Sioux, Crow, Bannacks, Assiniboines, Gros Ventries of the Prairie, Mandans, and Arickaree as well as other tribes of the region.  In the course of his duties he found almost constant use for his knowledge of sign language: both as a means for direct interchange of information and as a check on the accuracy and reliability of his interpreters.  

Knowing of Clark’s expertise in sign language, Lieut.-General Sheridan directed Clark to prepare a work on Indian Sign Language.  In the following three years Clark visited additional tribes in the north-central and north-west United States, and southern Canada, preparing a complete sign language vocabulary, a list of idioms, abbreviations, and variations between different tribes and geographic regions.  

Clark submitted his work on sign language of the Indians to Lieut.-General Sheridan on July 7, 1884.  In 1885 this work was published by L.R. Hamersly & Co. under the title “The Indian Sign Language, with Brief Explanatory Notes of the Gestures Taught Deaf-Mutes in Our Institutions, and a Description of Some Peculiar Laws, Customs, Myths, Superstitions, Ways of Living, Code of Peace and War Signals of Our Aborigines.”  This book has been reprinted many times since then under the abbreviated title “The Indian Sign Language.  

Indian Sign Language, by William Tomkins 108 pages Published by Dover Publications, New York, 1969.  

This is a republication of the 1931 5th edition of Universal Indian Sign Language of the Plains Indians of North America.  

As a child Tomkins lived on the edge of the Sioux Reservation from 1884-1894.  During these years he associated continuously with the Sioux Indians, learned some of their language, and made a study of sign language.  As an adult he continued his interest in sign and expanded his study to include sign of the Blackfoot, Cheyenne, Sioux, Arapahoe, and others.

Tomkins appears to have been well acquainted with Clark’s book, but recognized a need for a book which graphically illustrated signs as well as describing them.  Tomkins book was first titled “Universal Indian Sign Language of the Plains Indians of North America.”  At least as early as the 1926 edition of this book moderns terms such as “airplane” and “automobile”  and non-Indian expressions such as “Good Morning” were included in the book.  

Both books deserve a place in the collection of anyone wishing to become accomplished in the use of Indian sign language.  Although Tomkins book presents a much more modern evolution of sign language, many of the signs described in his book are identical to those described by Clark, and some are clearly taken directly from Clark.  The fact that Tomkins signs are illustrated as well as described makes them much easier for the beginning signer to learn and master.  Tomkins also includes a series of exercises of increasing difficulty at the end of the book to allow the user to increase proficiency in the use of sign.  

Clark’s written descriptions of sign are clear and concise, however, they are much more easily grasped with some initial familiarity with sign as provided by Tomkins.  For those wishing to enhance or expand their use and understanding of Indian sign language, Clark’s work is an especially valuable resource for a number of reasons:  Clark provides a much larger vocabulary of signs than Tomkins; Clark presents not only the sign, but also frequently used abbreviations or short-cuts; and where sign variations between tribal groups, or geographic areas exist, he describes the alternatives.  Clark also gives literal translations for many more signs than does Tomkins.  Literal translations of sign help in understanding and applying the sign in the course of conversation.  One such example of a literal translation is for “ashamed,” which is “blanket drawn over face.”  Finally, Clark’s sources for sign language were earlier than Tomkins, and are more likely to be representative of sign language practiced during the early part of the 1800’s.

Both of these books provide an excellent resource for learning the use of Plains Indian sign language.  Editions of both books are still in print as paperbacks, and new or used copies can easily be acquired at modest costs.

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