Sign Language Among North American Indians

Sign language among North American Indians was surprisingly uniform across the tribes, and appears to be the “language” of choice when Indians traversed from tribe to tribe in order to trade. This manuscript provides detailed signs for common dictionary words, complete narration and dialogue, as well as the history of sign language and how its origin in the Indian nations. Of particular interest are the sections on Native American gestures, and their use of smoke signals, fire signals, and dust signals.

During the past two years the present writer has devoted the intervals between official duties to collecting and collating materials for the study of sign language. As the few publications on the general subject, possessing more than historic interest, are meager in details and vague in expression, original investigation has been necessary. The high development of communication by gesture among the tribes of North America, and its continued extensive use by many of them, naturally directed the first researches to that continent, with the result that a large body of facts procured from collaborators and by personal examination has now been gathered and classified. A correspondence has also been established with many persons in other parts of the world whose character and situation rendered it probable that they would contribute valuable information. The success of that correspondence has been as great as could have been expected, considering that most of the persons addressed were at distant points sometimes not easily accessible by mail. As the collection of facts is still successfully proceeding, not only with reference to foreign peoples and to deaf-mutes everywhere, but also among some American tribes not yet thoroughly examined in this respect, no exposition of the subject pretending to be complete can yet be made. In complying, therefore, with the request to prepare the present paper, it is necessary to explain to correspondents and collaborators whom it may reach, that this is not the comprehensive publication by the Bureau of Ethnology for which their assistance has been solicited. With this explanation some of those who have already forwarded contributions will not be surprised at their omission, and others will not desist from the work in which they are still kindly engaged, under the impression that its results will not be received in time to meet with welcome and credit. On the contrary, the urgent appeal for aid before addressed to officers of the Army and Navy of this and other nations, to missionaries, travelers, teachers of deaf-mutes, and philologists generally, is now with equal urgency repeated. It is, indeed, hoped that the continued presentation of the subject to persons either having opportunity for observation or the power to favor with suggestions may, by awakening some additional interest in it, secure new collaboration from localities still unrepresented.

It will be readily understood by other readers that, as the limits assigned to this paper permit the insertion of but a small part of the material already collected and of the notes of study made upon that accumulation, it can only show the general scope of the work undertaken, and not its accomplishment. Such extracts from the collection have been selected as were regarded as most illustrative, and they are preceded by a discussion perhaps sufficient to be suggestive, though by no means exhaustive, and designed to be for popular, rather than for scientific use. In short, the direction to submit a progress-report and not a monograph has been complied with.

In this paper it is not designed to pronounce upon theories, and certainly none will be advocated in a spirit of dogmatism. The writer recognizes that the subject in its novelty specially requires an objective and not a subjective consideration. His duty is to collect the facts as they are, and this as soon as possible, since every year will add to the confusion and difficulty. After the facts are established the theories will take care of themselves, and their final enunciation will be in the hands of men more competent than the writer will ever pretend to be, although his knowledge, after careful study of all data attainable, may be considerably increased. The mere collection of facts, however, cannot be prosecuted to advantage without predetermined rules of judgment, nor can they be classified at all without the adoption of some principle which involves a tentative theory. More than a generation ago Baader noticed that scientific observers only accumulated great masses of separate facts without establishing more connection between them than an arbitrary and imperfect classification; and before him Goethe complained of the indisposition of students of nature to look upon the universe as a whole. But since the great theory of evolution has been brought to general notice no one will be satisfied at knowing a fact without also trying to establish its relation to other facts. Therefore a working hypothesis, which shall not be held to with tenacity, is not only allowable but necessary. It is also important to examine with proper respect the theories advanced by others. Some of these, suggested in the few publications on the subject and also by correspondents, will be mentioned.

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

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