Its Origin from One Tribe or Region – Sign Language

Col. Richard I. Dodge, United States Army, whose long experience among the Indians entitles his opinion to great respect, says in a letter:

“The embodiment of signs into a systematic language is, I believe, confined to the Indians of the Plains. Contiguous tribes gain, here and there, a greater or less knowledge of this language; these again extend the knowledge, diminished and probably perverted, to their neighbors, until almost all the Indian tribes of the United States east of the Sierras have some little smattering of it. The Plains Indians believe the Kiowas to have invented the sign language, and that by them its use was communicated to other Plains tribes. If this is correct, analogy would lead us to believe that those tribes most nearly in contact with the Kiowas would use it most fluently and correctly, the knowledge becoming less as the contact diminishes. Thus the Utes, though nearly contiguous (in territory) to the Plains Indians, have only the merest ‘picked up’ knowledge of this language, and never use it among themselves, simply because, they and the Plains tribes having been, since the memory of their oldest men, in a chronic state of war, there has been no social contact.”

In another communication Colonel Dodge is still more definite:

“The Plains Indians themselves believe the sign language was invented by the Kiowas, who holding an intermediate position between the Comanches, Tonkaways, Lipans, and other inhabitants of the vast plains of Texas, and the Pawnees, Sioux, Blackfeet, and other northern tribes, were the general go-betweens, trading with all, making peace or war with or for any or all. It is certain that the Kiowas are at present more universally proficient in this language than any other Plains tribe. It is also certain that the tribes farthest away from them and with whom they have least intercourse use it with least facility.”

Dr. William H. Corbusier, assistant surgeon United States Army, a valued contributor, gives information as follows:

“The traditions of the Indians point toward the south as the direction from which the sign language came. They refer to the time when they did not use it; and each tribe say they learned it from those south of them. The Comanches, who acquired it in Mexico, taught it to the Arapahoes and Kiowas, and from these the Cheyennes learned it. The Sioux say that they had no knowledge of it before they crossed the Missouri River and came in contact with the Cheyennes, but have quite recently learned it from them. It would thus appear that the Plains Indians did not invent it, but finding it adapted to their wants adopted it as a convenient means of communicating with those whose language they did not understand, and it rapidly spread from tribe to tribe over the Plains. As the sign language came from Mexico, the Spaniards suggest themselves as the introducers of it on this continent. They are adepts in the use of signs. Cortez as he marched through Mexico would naturally have resorted to signs in communicating with the numerous tribes with which he came in contract. Finding them very necessary, one sign after another would suggest itself and be adopted by Spaniards and Indians, and, as the former advanced, one tribe after another would learn to use them. The Indians on the Plains, finding them so useful, preserved them and each tribe modified them to suit their convenience, but the signs remained essentially the same. The Shoshones took the sign language with them as they moved northwest, and a few of the Piutes may have learned it from them, but the Piutes as a tribe do not use it.”

Mr. Ben. Clarke, the respected and skillful interpreter at Fort Reno writes to the same general effect:

“The Cheyennes think that the sign language used by the Cheyennes, Arapahoes, Ogallala and Brulé Sioux, Kiowas, and Comanches originated with the Kiowas. It is a tradition that, many years ago, when the Northern Indians were still without horses, the Kiowas often raided among the Mexican Indians and captured droves of horses on these trips. The Northern Plains Indians used to journey to them and trade for horses. The Kiowas were already proficient in signs, and the others learned from them. It was the journeying to the South that finally divided the Cheyennes, making the Northern and Southern Cheyennes. The same may be said of the Arapahoes. That the Kiowas were the first sign talkers is only a tradition, but as a tribe they are now considered to be the best or most thorough of the Plains Indians.”

Without engaging in any controversy on this subject it may be noticed that the theory advanced supposes a comparatively recent origin of sign language from one tribe and one region, whereas, so far as can be traced, the conditions favorable to a sign language existed very long ago and were co-extensive with the territory of North America occupied by any of the tribes. To avoid repetition reference is made to the discussion below under the heads of universality, antiquity, identity, and permanence. At this point it is only desired to call attention to the ancient prevalence of signs among tribes such as the Iroquois, Wyandot, Ojibwa, and at least three generations back among the Crees beyond our northern boundary and the Mandans and other far-northern Dakotas, not likely at that time to have had communication, even through inter-tribal channels, with the Kaiowa. It is also difficult to understand how their signs would have in that manner reached the Kutchin of Eastern Alaska and the Kutine and Selish of British Columbia, who use signs now. At the same time due consideration must be given to the great change in the intercommunication of tribes, produced by the importation of the horse, by which the habits of those Indians now, but not very anciently, inhabiting the Plains were entirely changed. It is probable that a sign language before existing became, contemporaneously with nomadic life, cultivated and enriched.

As regards the Spanish origin suggested, there is ample evidence that the Spaniards met signs in their early explorations north of and in the northern parts of Mexico, and availed themselves of them but did not introduce them. It is believed also that the elaborate picture writing of Mexico was founded on gesture signs.

With reference to the statement that the Kaiowa are the most expert sign talkers of the Plains, a number of authorities and correspondents give the precedence to the Cheyennes, and an equal number to the Arapahos. Probably the accident of meeting specially skillful talkers in the several tribes visited influences such opinions.

The writer’s experience, both of the Utes and Pai-Utes, is different from the above statement respecting the absence of signs among them. They not only use their own signs but fully understand the difference between the signs regarded as their own and those of the Kaiowas. On special examination they understood some of the latter only as words of a foreign language interpolated in an oral conversation would be comprehended from the context, and others they would recognize as having seen before among other tribes without adoption. The same is true regarding the Brulé Sioux, as was clearly expressed by Medicine Bull, their chief. The Pima, Papago, and Maricopa examined had a copious sign language, yet were not familiar with many Kaiowa signs presented to them.

Instead of referring to a time past when they did not use signs, the Indians examined by the writer and by most of his correspondents speak of a time when they and their fathers used it more freely and copiously than at present, its disuse being from causes before mentioned. It, however, may be true in some cases that a tribe, having been for a long time in contact only with others the dialect of which was so nearly akin as to be comprehensible, or from any reason being separated from those of a strange speech, discontinued sign language for a time, and then upon migration or forced removal came into circumstances where it was useful, and revived it. It is asserted that some of the Muskoki and the Ponkas now in the Indian Territory never saw sign language until they arrived there. Yet there is some evidence that the Muskoki did use signs a century ago, and some of the Ponkas still remaining on their old homes on the Missouri remember it and have given their knowledge to an accurate correspondent, Rev. J.O. Dorsey, though for many years they have not been in circumstances to require its employment.

Perhaps the most salutary criticism to be offered regarding the theory would be in the form of a query whether sign language has ever been invented by any one body of people at any one time, and whether it is not simply a phase in evolution, surviving and reviving when needed. Criticism on this subject is made reluctantly, as it would be highly interesting to determine that sign language on this continent came from a particular stock, and to ascertain that stock. Such research would be similar to that into the Aryan and Semitic sources to which many modern languages have been traced backwards from existing varieties, and if there appear to be existing varieties in signs their roots may still be found to be sui generis. The possibility that the discrepancy between signs was formerly greater than at present will receive attention in discussing the distinction between the identity of signs and their common use as an art. It is sufficient to add now that not only does the burden of proof rest unfavorably upon the attempt to establish one parent stock for sign language in North America, but it also comes under the stigma now fastened upon the immemorial effort to name and locate the original oral speech of man. It is only next in difficulty to the old persistent determination to decide upon the origin of the whole Indian “race,” in which most peoples of antiquity in the eastern hemisphere, including the lost tribes of Israel, the Gipsies, and the Welsh, have figured conspicuously as putative parents.

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

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