Dialogue Between Alaskan Indians – Sign Language

The following introductory notes are furnished by Mr. Ivan Petroff, who contributes the Dialogue:

It has been repeatedly stated that among the natives of Alaska no trace of gesture or sign language can be found. The universal spread of the Russian language in former times as a medium of trade and general intercourse has certainly prevented observations of this primitive linguistic feature in all the vast regions visited by the Russians. On the other hand, the homogeneous elements of the Innuit tongue, spoken along the whole seacoast from the Arctic to the Alaskan Peninsula, and the Island of Kadiak, has, to a great extent, abolished all causes for the employment of sign language between tribes in their mutual intercourse. Basing their opinions upon what they saw while touching upon the coast here and there, even the acknowledged authorities on Alaskan matters have declared that sign language did not and could not exist in all that country. Without entering into any lengthened dispute upon this question, I venture to present in the subjoined pages a succinct account of at least one instance where I saw natives of different tribes converse with each other only by means of signs and gestures within the boundaries of Alaska.

In the month of September, 1866, there arrived on the Lower Kinnik River, a stream emptying its waters into Cook’s Inlet, two Indians from a distant region, who did not speak the Kenaitze language. The people of the settlement at which the strangers made their first appearance were equally at a loss to understand the visitors. At last a chief of great age, bearing the name of Chatidoolts (mentioned by Vancouver as a youth), was found to be able to interpret some of the signs made by the strangers, and after a little practice he entered into a continued conversation with them in rather a roundabout way, being himself blind. He informed me that it was the second or third time within his recollection that strangers like those then present had come to Kinnik from the northeast, but that in his youth he had frequently “talked with his hands” to their visitors from the west and east. He also told me that he had acquired this art from his father, who, as the old man expressed himself, had “seen every country, and spoken to all the tribes of the earth.” The conversation was carried on with the help of the old man’s sons, who described to their blind parent the gestures of the strangers, and were instructed in turn by him with what gestures to reply.

This being an entirely new experience to me I at once proceeded to carefully make notes of the desultory talk, extending over several days. My object, primarily, was to make use of the signs for purposes of trade in the future.

The notes thus obtained contain a narrative of the two strangers, interpreted to me at the time by Chatidoolts. I shall present each sign or sentence as I noted it at the time, with only casual reference to that incomplete and frequently erroneous interpretation.

The two Indians wore the pointed hunting shirt of tanned moose-skin, ornamented with beads and fringes which is still common to the Kutchin tribes. They were not tattooed, but ears and noses were encumbered with pendants of dentalium and a small red glass bead. Their feet were clothed in moccasins. One of them had a rifle of English manufacture, and his companion carried two huge knives, one of them of copper evidently of native manufacture.

(1) Kenaitze. – —Left hand raised to height of eye, palm outward, moved several times from right to left rapidly; fingers extended and closed; pointing to strangers with left hand. Right hand describes a curve from north to east— – Which of the northeastern tribes is yours?

(2) Tennanah.— – Right hand, hollowed, lifted to mouth, then extended and describing waving line gradually descending from right to left. Left hand describing mountainous outline, apparently one peak rising above the other, said by Chatidoolts to mean— – Tenan-tnu-kohtana, Mountain-river-men.

(3) K.— – Left hand raised to height of eye, palm outward, moved from right to left, fingers extended. Left index describes curve from east to west. Outline of mountain and river as in preceding sign.— – How many days from Mountain-river?

(4) T.— – Right hand raised toward sky, index and thumb forming first crescent and then ring. This repeated three times – —moon, new and full three times.

(5) Right hand raised, palm to front, index raised and lowered at regular intervals—walked. Both hands imitating paddling of canoe, alternately right and left— – traveled three months on foot and by canoe.

(6) Both arms crossed over breast, simulating shivering— – cold, winter.

(7) Right index pointing toward speaker—I. Left hand pointing to the west— – traveled westward.

(8) Right hand lifted cup-shaped to mouth—water. Right hand describing waving line from right to left gradually descending, pointing to the west— – river running westward.

(9) Right hand gradually pushed forward, palm upward, from height of breast. Left hand shading eyes; looking at great distance – —very wide.

(10) Left and right hands put together in shape of sloping shelter— – lodge, camp. See Fig. 259, on p. 431.

(11) Both hands lifted, height of eye, palm inward, fingers spread— – many times.

(12) Both hands closed, palm outward, height of hips – —surprised.

(13) Index pointing from eye forward— – see.

(14) Right hand held up, height of shoulder, three fingers extended, left hand pointing to me— – three white men.

(15) K.— – Right hand pointing to me, left hand held up, three fingers extended – —three white men.

(16) Making Russian sign of cross— – Russians. Were the three white men Russians?

(17) T.— – Left hand raised, palm inward, two fingers extended, sign of cross with right— – two Russians.

(18) Right hand extended, height of eye, palm outward, moved outward a little to right— – no.

(19) One finger of left hand raise – d—one.

(20) Sign of cross with right— – Russian.

(21) Right hand height of eye, fingers closed and extended, palm outward a little to right— – no.

(22) Right hand carried across chest, hand extended, palm upward, fingers and thumb closed as if holding something. Left hand in same position carried across the right, palm downward— – trade.

(23) Left hand upholding one finger, right pointing to me – —one white man.

(24) Right hand held horizontally, palm downward, about four feet from ground— – small.

(25) Forming rings before eyes with index and thumb— – eye-glasses.

(26) Right hand clinched, palm upward, in front of chest, thumb pointing inward— – gave one.

(27) Forming cup with right hand, simulating drinking— – drink.

(28) Right hand grasping chest repeatedly, fingers curved and spread— – strong.

(29) Both hands pressed to temple and head moved from side to side— – drunk, headache.

(30) Both index fingers placed together, extended, pointing forward – —together.

(31) Fingers interlaced repeatedly— – build.

(32) Left hand extended, fingers closed, pointing outward (vertically), right hand extended, fingers closed, placed slopingly against left – camp.

(33) Both wrists placed against temples, hands curved upward and outward, fingers spread— – horns.

(34) Both hands horizontally lifted to height of shoulder, right arm extended gradually full length to the right, hand drooping a little at the end— – long back, moose.

(35) Both hands upright, palm outward, fingers extended and spread, placing one before the other alternately— – trees, forest, dense forest.

(36) Sign of cross – —Russian.

(37) Motions of shooting a gun – —shot.

(38) Sign for moose (Nos. 33, 34), showing two fingers of left hand— – two.

(39) Sign for camp as before (No. 10) camp.

(40) Right hand describing curve from east to west, twice— – two days.

(41) Left hand lifted height of mouth, back outward, fingers closed as if holding something; right hand simulating motion of tearing off and placing in mouth— – eating moose meat.

(42) Right hand placed horizontally against heart, fingers closed, moved forward a little and raised a little several times— – glad at heart.

(43) Fingers of left hand and index of right hand extended and placed together horizontally, pointing forward, height of chest. Hands separated, right pointing eastward and left westward – —three men and speaker parted, going west and east.

(44) Pressing both arms against chest and shivering— – very cold.

(45) Drawing index of each hand around corresponding legs below the knee— – deep snow.

(46) Drawing imaginary line with index of right hand across each foot, just behind the toes— – snow shoes.

(47) Head lowered to right side into palm of hand three times— – slept three times.

(48) Sign for camp, as before (No. 10)— camp.

(49) Pointing to speaker – —I.

(50) Fingers of right hand extended and joined and pointed forward from mouth, left hand lowered horizontally to a foot from the ground— – fox.

(51) Left hand raised height of eye, back to the left, fingers closed, with exception of middle finger held upright; then middle finger suddenly closed— – trap.

(52) Both hands lifted height of eye, palm inward, fingers spread— – many.

(53) Right hand pointing to speaker— – I.

(54) Sign for trap (No. 51), as above— – trap.

(55) Right hand lowered to within a few inches of the ground and moved from left to right about two feet. Motions of both hands descriptive of playful jumping of marten around a tree or stump— – marten.

(56) Holding up the fingers of both hands three times until aggregating thirty— – thirty.

(57) Left forearm held up vertically, palm to front, fingers spread – —tree.

(58) Motion of chopping with hatchet— – cut.

(59) Driving invisible wedge around small circle – —peeling birch bark.

(60) Right hand, fingers extended and joined, moved slowly from left to right horizontally while blowing upon it with mouth – —pitching seams of canoe.

(61) Motions of using paddle very vigorously— – paddle up stream.

(62) Lifting both arms above head on respective sides, hands closed as if grasping something and lifting the body— – poling canoe.

(63) Sign for moon (No. 4), (crescent and ring) once— – one month.

(64) Right hand vertically, height of chest, palm to left, fingers extended, closed. Left hand horizontally, palm downward, pushed against right— – stopped.

(65) Right hand, index extended, drawing outline of mountains, one above other— – high mountains.

(66) Left hand lifted to left shoulder, back to front, fingers bent and closed. Right hand, fingers bent and closed, placed over left and then slowly drawn across chest to right shoulder. Motion with both hands as if adjusting pack— – pack, knapsack.

(67) Sign for water as before (No. 8). Both hands brought forward, palms down, arms passed outward horizontally to respective sides, palms down—lake. Both hands describing circular line backward until touching collar bone— – big and deep.

(68) Left hand raised slightly about height of nipple, three fingers closed; index and thumb holding tip of index of right hand. Both hands moved across chest from left to right – —beaver. 1

(69) Previous sign for many (No. 52) repeated several times— – very plentiful.

(70) Both hands held up with fingers spread, palm forward, twice and left hand once—height of eye— – twenty-five.

(71) Pointing to himself— – I.

(72) Sign for trap as before (No. 51)— trapped.

(73) Sign for temporary shelter (No. 10)— camped.

(74) Sign for new and full moon (No. 4), once— – one month.

(75) Right hand passed slowly over the hair and chin. Left hand touching a pendant of white bead – s—old man.

(76) Index of right hand held up— – one.

(77) Both hands partially closed and placed against breast, back of hands to front, a few inches apart—women.

(78) Index and middle finger of right hand held up, palm forward; eyes directed as if counting – —two.

(79) Sign for trap as before (No. 51)— trapping.

(80) Left forearm vertically in front of chest, palm of hand to front, fingers spread, elbow resting upon the back of the right hand – —tree.

(81) Arms and hands spanning imaginary tree of some size— – big.

(82) Sign for tree as before (No. 57), left forearm suddenly brought down across extended right hand— – fell.

(83) Right hand laid on top of head, then passed over the hair and chin, left hand touching white beads – on the head of the old man.

(84) Sign for old man as before (No. 75)— old man.

(85) Closing both eyes with fore and middle finger of right hand; both hands placed side by side, horizontally, palms downward, fingers extended and united, hands separated by slow horizontal movement to right and left— – dead.

(86) Sign for women as before (No. 77)— women.

(87) Fingers of both hands interlaced at right angles several times— – built.

(88) Sign for lodge as before (No. 10) —lodge. 2

(89) Right index describing circle around the head, height of eye (cutting hair). Right hand passed over forehead and face. Left index pointing to black scabbard (blacking faces)— mourning.

(90) Index and middle finger of right hand passed from eyes downward across cheeks— – weeping.

(91) Pointing to himself – —I.

(92) Make the signs for shoot (Nos. 33, 34), and moose (No. 37)— shot a moose.

(93) Left hand extended horizontally, palm upward, right hand placed across left vertically, about the middle— – divided in two.

(94) Right hand closed, palm downward, moved forward from right breast the length of the arm and then opened— – I gave.

(95) Sign for women, (No. 77) —to women.

(96) Right hand, palm down, pointing to left, placed horizontally before heart and slightly raised several times – —good and glad.

(97) Pointing to his companion— – he.

(98) Motion of paddling  – —in canoe.

(99) Right arm and hand extended in N.E. direction, gradually curved back until index touches speaker— – came to me from the northeast.

(100) Sign for together as above (No. 30)— together.

(101) Motion of paddling— – paddled.

(102) Pointing to ground – —to this place.

(103) K. Motion of drinking water out of hand— – water.

(104) Describing circle with right index on palm of left hand extended horizontally— – lake.

(105) Left hand raised to height of eye, palm to front, fingers leaning slightly backward. Fingers of left hand closed alternately— – how many?

(106) T. Holding up right hand back to front, showing four fingers, eyes looking at them as if counting— – four.

(107) Sign for packing with wooden breast-brace as above; three fingers of right hand shown as above – —three portages.

(108) K. Right hand pointing to gun of stranger—gun. Left hand raised height of eye, palm to front, and moved rapidly several times to right and left— – interrogation.

(109) Sign for trade as before (No. 22)— trade; i.e., where did you buy the gun?

(110) T. Sign for Mountain-river as above (No. 2). Pointing eastward— – from the eastward.

(111) Pointing to sun and then raising both hands, backs to front, fingers spread— – ten days.

(112) Pointing to me— – white man.

(113) Left hand held up vertically, palm outward, fingers joined. Right index placed horizontally across fingers of left hand in front, about the middle joint – —pallisaded.

(114) Describing square with right index on flat palm of left hand – —building.

(115) Pointing to his gun, powder-horn, blanket, and beads— – trading goods.

(116) Both hands horizontal, brought forward and upward from chest and then downward— – plenty.

In giving this narrative I have observed the original sequence, but there were frequent interruptions, caused by consultation between Chatidoolts and his sons, and before the strangers departed again they had obtained a knowledge of some words of the Kenaitze language.

  1. Chatidoolts explained this to his sons as well as to me, saying that the mountain men had a peculiar mode of catching beavers with long sticks.[]
  2. They never occupy a house in which one of the other Indians died.[]

Sign Language Among North American Indians Compared with that Among Other Peoples and Deaf-Mutes. 1881

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