Signals – Signals Executed by Bodily Action – Sign Language

The collaborators in the work above explained have not generally responded to the request to communicate material under this head. It is, however, hoped that by now printing some extracts from published works and the few contributions recently procured, the attention of observers will be directed to the prosecution of research in this direction.

The term “signal” is here used in distinction from the signs noted in the Dictionary, extracts from which are given above, as being some action or manifestation intended to be seen at a distance, and not allowing of the minuteness or detail possible in close converse. Signals may be executed, first, exclusively by bodily action; second, by action of the person in connection with objects, such as a blanket, or a lance, or the direction imparted to a horse; third, by various devices, such as smoke, fire or dust, when the person of the signalist is not visible. When not simply intended to attract attention they are generally conventional, and while their study has not the same kind of importance as that of gesture signs, it possesses some peculiar interest.

Signals Executed by Bodily Action

Some of these are identical, or nearly so, with the gesture signs used by the same people.

Alarm. See Notes on Cheyenne and Arapaho signals, infra.


Close the hand, place it against the forehead, and turn it back and forth while in that position. (Col. R.B. Marcy, U.S.A., Thirty Years of Army Life on the Border, New York, 1866, p. 34.)

Come Here

The right hand is to be advanced about eighteen inches at the height of the navel, horizontal, relaxed, palm downward, thumb in the palm; then draw it near the side and at the same time drop the hand to bring the palm backward. The farther away the person called is, the higher the hand is raised. If very far off, the hand is raised high up over the head and then swung forward, downward, and backward to the side. (Dakota I, IV.)


There is something dangerous in that place.—Right-hand index-finger and thumb forming a curve, the other fingers closed; move the right hand forward, pointing in the direction of the dangerous place or animal. (Omaha I.)


Right-hand index and middle fingers open; motion to ward the enemy signifies “I do not fear you.” Reverse the motion, bringing the hand toward the subject, means “Do your worst to me.” (Omaha I.)


Pass around that object or place near you—she-í-he ti-dhá-ga.—When a man is at a distance, I say to him “Go around that way.” Describe a curve by raising the hand above the head, forefinger open, move to right or left according to direction intended and hand that is used, i.e., move to the left, use right hand; move to the right, use left hand. (Omaha I; Ponka I.)


– – ——To inquire disposition.

Raise the right hand with the palm in front and gradually push it forward and back several times; if they are not hostile it will at once be obeyed. (Randolph B. Marcy, The Prairie Traveler. New York, 1859, p. 214.)

—— – – Stand there! He is coming to you.

Right hand extended, flat, edgewise, moved downward several times. (Omaha I.)

——- – Stand there! He is going toward you.

Hold the open right hand, palm to the left, with the tips of the fingers toward the person signaled to; thrust the hand forward in either an upward or downward curve. (Omaha I; Ponka I.)

——- – Lie down flat where you are—she-dhu bis-pé zhan’-ga.

Extend the right arm in the direction of the person signaled to, having the palm down; move downward by degrees to about the knees. (Omaha I; Ponka I.)

Peace; Friendship

Hold up palm of hand.—Observed as made by an Indian of the Kansas tribe in 1833. (John T. Irving, Indian Sketches. Philadelphia, 1835, vol. ii, p. 253.)

Elevate the extended hands at arm’s length above and on either side of the head. Observed by Dr. W.J. Hoffman, as made in Northern Arizona in 1871 by the Apaches, Mojaves, Hualpais, and Seviches. “No arms”—corresponding with “hands up” of road-agents. Fig. 335.

Fig. 335
Fig. 335

The right hand held aloft, empty. (General G.A. Custer, My Life on the Plains, New York, 1874, p. 238.) This may be collated with the lines in Walt Whitman’s Salut au Monde –

Toward all
I raise high the perpendicular hand,—I make the signal.

The Natchez in 1682 made signals of friendship to La Salle’s party by the joining of the two hands of the signalist, much embarrassing Tonty, La Salle’s lieutenant, in command of the advance in the descent of the Mississippi, who could not return the signal, having but one hand. His men responded in his stead. (Margry, Decouvertes et Établissments des Français dans l’ouest et dans le sud de l’Amérique Septentrionale, &c.)


– – ——I do not know you. Who are you?

After halting a party coming: Right hand raised, palm in front and slowly moved to the right and left. [Answered by tribal sign.] (Marcy’s Prairie Traveler, loc. cit., 214.) Fig. 336. In this illustration the answer is made by giving the tribal sign for Pani.

– –  To inquire if coming party is peaceful.

To inquire if coming party is peaceful.Raise both hands, grasped in the manner of shaking hands, or by locking the two forefingers firmly while the hands are held up. If friendly they will respond with the same signal. (Marcy’s Prairie Traveler, loc. cit., 214.)

Fig. 336
Fig. 336


The United States steamer Saranac in 1874, cruising in Alaskan waters, dropped anchor in July, 1874, in Freshwater Harbor, back of Sitka, in latitude 59° north. An armed party landed at a T’linkit village, deserted by all the inhabitants except one old man and two women, the latter seated at the feet of the former. The man was in great fear, turned his back and held up his hands as a sign of utter helplessness. (Extract from notes kindly furnished by Lieutenant-Commander Wm. Bainbridge Hoff, U.S.N., who was senior aid to Rear-Admiral Pennock, on the cruise mentioned.)


The palm of the hand is held toward the person [to whom the surrender is made]. (Long.)

Hold the palm of the hand toward the person as high above the head as the arm can be raised. (Dakota I.)


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

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