Signals – Signals in Which Objects Are Used in Connection With Personal Action – Sign Language

Buffalo Discovered. See also Notes on Cheyenne and Arapaho signals

When the Ponkas or Omahas discover buffalo the watcher stands erect on the hill, with his face toward the camp, holding his blanket with an end in each hand, his arms being stretched out (right and left) on a line with, shoulders. (Dakota VIII; Omaha I; Ponka I.) See Fig. 337.

Fig. 337 - Signal for "buffalo discovered."
Fig. 337 – Signal for “buffalo discovered.”

Signal for “buffalo discovered.”

Same as (Omaha I), and (Ponka I); with the addition that after the blanket is held out at arm’s length the arms are crossed in front of the body. (DakotaI.)


When it is intended to encamp, a blanket is elevated upon a pole so as to be visible to all the individuals of a moving party. (Dakota VIII.)

Come! To Beckon to a Person

Hold out the lower edge of the robe or blanket, then wave it in to the legs. This is made when there is a desire to avoid general observation. (Matthews.)

Come Back!

Gather or grasp the left side of the unbuttoned coat (or blanket) with the right hand, and, either standing or sitting in position so that the signal can be seen, wave it to the left and right as often as may be necessary for the sign to be recognized. When made standing the person should not move his body. (Dakota I.)

Danger. See also Notes on Cheyenne and Arapaho signals.

——- – Horseman at a distance, galloping, passing and repassing, and crossing each other—enemy comes. But for notice of herd of buffalo, they gallop back and forward abreast—do not cross each other. (H.M. Brackenridge’s Views of Louisiana. Pittsburgh, 1814, p. 250.)

——- – Riding rapidly round in a circle, “Danger! Get together as quickly as possible.” (Richard Irving Dodge, lieutenant-colonel United States Army, The Plains of the Great West. New York, 1877, p. 368.)

——- – Point the right index in the direction of the danger, and then throw the arm over the front of the body diagonally, so that the hand rests near the left shoulder, back outward. If the person to be notified of the danger should be in the rear precede the above signal with that for “Attention.” This signal can also be made with a blanket, properly grasped so as to form a long narrow roll. Perhaps this signal would more properly belong under “Caution,” as it would be used to denote the presence of a dangerous beast or snake, and not that of a human enemy. (Dakota I.)

——- – Passing and repassing one another, either on foot or mounted, is used as a war-signal; which is expressed in the Hidatsa—makimakă’da—halidié. (Mandan and Hidatsa I.)


—- – Pass around that place.

Point the folded blanket in the direction of the object or place to be avoided, then draw it near the body, and wave it rapidly several times in front of the body only, and then throwing it out toward the side on which you wish the person to approach you, and repeat a sufficient number of times for the signal to be understood. (Dakota I.)


The discovery of enemies, game, or anything else, is announced by riding rapidly to and fro, or in a circle. The idea that there is a difference in the signification of these two directions of riding appears, according to many of the Dakota Indians of the Missouri Valley, to be erroneous. Parties away from their regular encampment are generally in search of some special object, such as game, or of another party, either friendly or hostile, which is, generally understood, and when that object is found, the announcement is made to their companions in either of the above ways. The reason that a horseman may ride from side to side is, that the party to whom he desires to communicate may be at a particular locality, and his movement—at right angles to the direction to the party—would be perfectly clear. Should the party be separated into smaller bands, or have flankers or scouts at various points, the only way in which the rider’s signal could be recognized as a motion from side to side, by all the persons to whom the signal was directed, would be for him to ride in a circle, which he naturally does. (Dakota VI, VII, VIII.) Fig. 338.

Fig. 338
Fig. 338 – Signal of discovery or alarm.

The latter was noticed by Dr. Hoffman in 1873, on the Yellowstone River, while attached to the Stanley Expedition. The Indians had again concentrated after their first repulse by General Custer, and taken possession of the woods and bluffs on the opposite side of the river. As the column came up, one Indian was seen upon a high bluff to ride rapidly round in a circle, occasionally firing off his revolver. The signal announced the discovery of the advancing force, which had been expected, and he could be distinctly seen from the surrounding region. As many of the enemy were still scattered over the neighborhood, some of them would not have been able to recognize this signal had he ridden to and from an observer, but the circle produced a lateral movement visible from any point.——

– – Of enemies, or other game than Buffalo. See also Notes on Cheyenne and Arapaho signals.The discovery of enemies is indicated by riding rapidly around in a circle, so that the signal could be seen by their friends, but out of sight of the discovered enemy. (Dakota I.)

When enemies are discovered, or other game than buffalo, the sentinel waves his blanket over his head up and down, holding an end in each hand. (Omaha I; Ponka I.)

——- – Of game, wood, water, &c.

This is communicated by riding rapidly forward and backward on the top of the highest hill. The same would be communicated with a blanket by waving it right and left, and then directly toward the game or whatever the party might be searching for, indicating that it is not to the right or to the left, but directly in front. (Dakota I.)

Drill, Military

“It is done by signals, devised after a system of the Indian’s own invention, and communicated in various ways.

“Wonderful as the statement may appear, the signaling on a bright day, when the sun is in the proper direction, is done with a piece of looking-glass held in the hollow of the hand. The reflection of the sun’s rays thrown on the ranks communicates in some mysterious way the wishes of the chief. Once standing on a little knoll overlooking the valley of the South Platte, I witnessed almost at my feet a drill of about one hundred warriors by a Sioux chief, who sat on his horse on a knoll opposite me, and about two hundred yards from his command in the plain below. For more than half an hour he commanded a drill, which for variety and promptness of action could not be equaled by any civilized cavalry of the world. All I could see was an occasional movement of the right arm. He himself afterwards told me that he used a looking-glass.” (Dodge’s Plains of the Great West, loc. cit., pp. 307, 308.)


If two Indians [of the plains] are approaching one another on horseback, and they may, for instance, be one mile apart, or as far as they can see each other. At that safe distance one wants to indicate to the other that he wishes to be friendly. He does this by turning his horse around and traveling about fifty paces back and forth, repeating this two or three times; this shows to the other Indian that he is not for hostility, but for friendly relations. If the second Indian accepts this proffered overture of friendship, he indicates the same by locking the fingers of both hands as far as to the first joints, and in that position raises his hands and lets them rest on his forehead with the palms either in or out, indifferently, as if he were trying to shield his eyes from the excessive light of the sun. This implies, “I, too, am for peace,” or “I accept your overture.” (Sac, Fox, and Kickapoo I.) It is interesting in this connection to note the reception of Father Marquette by an Illinois chief who is reported to have raised his hands to his eyes as if to shield them from overpowering splendor. That action was supposed to be made in a combination of humility and admiration, and a pretended inability to gaze on the face of the illustrious guest has been taken to be the conception of the gesture, which in fact was probably only the holding the interlocked hands in the most demonstrative posture. An oriental gesture in which the flat hand is actually interposed as a shield to the eyes before a superior is probably made with the poetical conception erroneously attributed to the Indian.

The display of green branches to signalize friendly or pacific intentions does not appear to have been noticed among the North American Indians by trustworthy observers. Captain Cook makes frequent mention of it as the ceremonial greeting among islands he visited. See his Voyage toward the South Pole. London, 1784, Vol. II, pp. 30 and 35. Green branches were also waved, in signal of friendship by the natives of the island of New Britain to the members of the expedition in charge of Mr. Wilfred Powell in 1878. Proceedings of the Royal Geological Society, February, 1881, p. 89.


——- – Stand there! he is coming this way.

Grasp the end of the blanket or robe; wave it downward several times. (Omaha I.)

——- – To inquire disposition.

Wave the folded blanket to the right and left in front of the body, then point toward the person or persons approaching, and carry it from a horizontal position in front of the body rapidly downward and upward several times. (Dakota I.)


Wave the blanket directly in front of the body upward and downward several times. Many of anything. (Dakota I.)

Peace, Coupled with Invitation

Motion of spreading a real or imaginary robe or skin on the ground. Noticed by Lewis and Clark on their first meeting with the Shoshoni in 1805. (Lewis and Clark’s Travels, &c., London, 1817, vol. ii, p. 74.) This signal is more particularly described as follows: Grasp the blanket by the two corners with the hands, throw it above the head, allowing it to unfold as it falls to the ground as if in the act of spreading it.


The ordinary manner of opening communication with parties known or supposed to be hostile is to ride toward them in zigzag manner, or to ride in a circle. (Custer’s My Life on the Plains, loc. cit., p. 58.)

This author mentions (p. 202) a systematic manner of waving a blanket, by which the son of Satana, the Kaiowa chief, conveyed information to him, and a similar performance by Yellow Bear, a chief of the Arapahos (p. 219), neither of which he explains in detail.

——- – I do not know you. Who are you?

Point the folded blanket at arm’s length toward the person, and then wave it toward the right and left in front of the face. You—I don’t know. Take an end of the blanket in each hand, and extend the arms to full capacity at the sides of the body, letting the other ends hang down in front of the body to the ground, means, Where do you come from? or who are you? (Dakota I.)

Safety.  All Quiet.  See Notes on Cheyenne and Arapaho signals.


Hold the folded blanket or a piece of cloth high above the head. “This really means ‘I want to die right now.'” (Dakota I.)

Surrounded, We are

Take an end of the blanket in each hand, extend the arms at the sides of the body, allowing the blanket to hang down in front of the body, and then wave it in a circular manner. (Dakota I.)

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

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