Signals – Notes on Cheyenne and Arapaho Signals – Sign Language

The following information was obtained from Wa-un'(Bobtail), Mo-hi’-nuk’-ma-ha’-it (Big horse), Cheyennes, and O-qo-his’-sa (The Mare, better known as “Little Raven”), and Na’-watc (Left Hand), Arapahos, chiefs and members of a delegation who visited Washington, D.C., in September, 1880, in the interest of their tribes dwelling in Indian Territory:

A party of Indians going on the war-path leave camp, announcing their project to the remaining individuals and informing neighboring friends by sending runners. A party is not systematically organized until several days away from its headquarters, unless circumstances should require immediate action. The pipe-bearers are appointed, who precede the party while on the march, carrying the pipes, and no one is allowed to cross ahead of these individuals, or to join the party by riding up before the head of the column, as it would endanger the success of the expedition. All new arrivals fall in from either side or the rear. Upon coming in sight of any elevations of land likely to afford a good view of the surrounding country the warriors come to a halt and secrete themselves as much as possible. The scouts who have already been selected, advance just before daybreak to within a moderate distance of the elevation to ascertain if any of the enemy has preceded them. This is only discovered by carefully watching the summit to see if any objects are in motion; if not, the flight of birds is observed, and if any should alight upon the hill or butte it would indicate the absence of anything that might ordinarily scare them away. Should a large bird, as a raven, crow, or eagle, fly toward the hill-top and make a sudden swerve to either side and disappear, it would indicate the presence of something sufficient to require further examination. When it is learned that there is reason to suspect an enemy the scout, who has all the time been closely watched by the party in the rear, makes a signal for them to lie still, signifying danger or caution. It is made by grasping the blanket with the right hand and waving it earthward from a position in front of and as high as the shoulder. This is nearly the same as civilized Americans use the hand for a similar purpose in battle or hunting to direct “lie quiet”!

Should the hill, however, be clear of any one, the Indian will ascend slowly, and under cover as much as possible, and gain a view of the country. If there is no one to be seen, the blanket is grasped and waved horizontally from right to left and back again repeatedly, showing a clear surface. If the enemy is discovered, the scout will give the alarm by running down the hill, upon a side visible to the watchers, in a zigzag manner, which communicates the state of affairs.

Should any expedition or advance be attempted at night, the same signals as are made with the blanket are made with a firebrand, which is constructed of a bunch of grass tied to a short pole.

When a war party encamps for a night or a day or more, a piece of wood is stuck into the ground, pointing in the direction pursued, with a number of cuts, notches, or marks corresponding to the number of days which the party spent after leaving the last camp until leaving the present camp, serving to show to the recruits to the main party the course to be followed, and the distance.

A hunting party in advancing takes the same precautions as a war party, so as not to be surprised by an enemy. If a scout ascends a prominent elevation and discovers no game, the blanket is grasped and waved horizontally from side to side at the height of the shoulders or head; and if game is discovered the Indian rides back and forth (from left to right) a short distance so that the distant observers can view the maneuver. If a large herd of buffalo is found, the extent traveled over in going to and fro increases in proportion to the size of the herd. A quicker gait is traveled when the herd is very large or haste on the part of the hunters is desired.

It is stated that these Indians also use mirrors to signal from one elevation to another, but the system could not be learned, as they say they have no longer use for it, having ceased warfare(?).

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

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