Manataka American Indian Council





Pointing With Our Lips

Corina Roberts, Founder of Redbird


At a Cultural Sensitivity seminar in Los Angeles for counselors working in minority communities, the teacher offered the following joke.


Three good friends were out hunting with their favorite dogs, boasting about their hunting ability.  “Watch this” said the English man.  “Rover, go seek!”  Immediately his dog took off at a full run, darting all through the brush, until he came to a bevy of quail.  The dog froze, pointing with his front leg and standing like a statue, marking the spot where the quail stood.


“That’s very impressive” said his French hunting partner, “but watch this.”  With a series of shrill whistles he directed his dog to search.  The French man’s dog sped off and soon found the location of an animal, hidden in the brush.  The dog barked furiously and spun in circles, marking the location of the hiding animal.


Both the English and the French man then turned to their Native American hunting partner.  “What can your dog do?”  they asked.  The native man motioned to his dog with his chin, sweeping the surroundings with a motion of his head.  The native dog looked around, sat down, and pointed toward another patch of brush with his lips.


Predictably, the native people in the audience laughed out loud.


Most of us, regardless of our heritage, have been taught that it is rude to point at a person, but few people will go to such great effort to avoid pointing as indigenous people of the western hemisphere.  For native people, it isn’t just people that you shouldn’t point at, but also trees and animals, homes, graves, regalia and medicine items.  Why?


There are several explanations.  “Native people were familiar with their surroundings” says Aldo Seoane of the Mayo nation.  “Not only with other members of their family, clan, or nation, but also with the plants, animals and physical features of their surroundings.  These had names”. 


Pointing to an object or person is unnecessary when you can describe it with a name or word, and when the person you are conversing with knows the name or description of the subject intimately.  There were few things that were unfamiliar.  You wouldn’t need to point out a stranger; their unfamiliarity would be quite obvious.


Pointing would also have been confusing in communicating, since there was a system of sign language that often bridged the gap between native peoples who spoke different languages.  The sign made to ask someone their name is about as close to pointing as this language comes, and it is done with the palm toward the person making the sign, and the index finger pointing upward as much as toward the person in question. 


Pointing is perceived, with somewhat universal agreement among tribal people, to be accusatory.  As one Hupa grandmother told her grand daughter, “finger pointing was an accusation of someone doing something bad and that was a way of telling on that person”. She said “there was always a silent agreement among our people to never tell on one another”.


There is another all-important factor that is often not expressed with regard to pointing, whether it is at a person or an object.  There is energy, or medicine, relating to all living things.  To point at someone could be perceived as affecting them with your energy, or taking theirs.  When you live with a conscious awareness of the physical, spiritual and energetic presence of those around you, pointing takes on additional gravity. 


As one Creek woman from Green Country, Oklahoma put it, “We don’t point with our fingers or hands. I think that it is not just rude, but also because some people use their hands for medicine, and so it creeps people out. It’s rude to make people feel like you might be doing something when you are not. It’s also bad to touch people you aren't close to unless you are shaking hands at certain times. Even then, many people are still uncomfortable about touching and no pointing...may be someone puttin’ their bad on you”.


“I was taught that by pointing your finger you were taking away a person or thing’s spirit” said Christina of Berrien Springs, Michigan.


It is safe to say that most Native American nations avoid pointing, and teach various reasons why it should not be done.  Michael Reifel, a tribal member of the San Carlos Apache nation, was raised by his adoptive parents, a Chickasaw mother and a Lakota father.  His upbringing was a blend of private schools and traditional values, and both of his parents taught him not to point with his hand or fingers, but to use his lips or chin to indicate a person or direction.  When he returned to the San Carlos Reservation, he was quick to observe that this was also the way of his nation of birth.


“My parents taught me by example” Michael recalls.  “They never made a big scene over my behavior.  There was never any reprimanding in public.  They would use their chin or their lips to point, and quietly discourage the use of hands or fingers.  They didn’t offer a lot of explanation. I just caught on to what the right behavior was by their example”.


Not everyone has been raised with this sensitivity.  “I would say that younger people, let’s say forty and under, are much more likely to point unabashedly and without a second thought” Michael reflected.  “Usually when I see elders use their hands to point, they do it in a general way, without fully extending their fingers, and keeping their palms upturned, almost the way you would use your hands to tell a story or survey a landscape”.


Laura, a Lipan Apache from Indiana, refuses to give in to pointing, even at work. “People often look at me in confusion when I’m at work, and I tell them to pick up their order ‘down there’ and motion with my head or chin”. 

Some don’t remember being taught to point with their lips or chin…it is simply an inherent part of their behavior.  Rick, of the Comanche nation, stated “Just about everybody in my nation seems to do it, including me. I never really thought about why. I really don't know except that I just kind of picked it up from my family. When my ex-wife, who is not native, first met my family, she said, ‘How come you guys are always making the kissy face at each other?’”


While it may be impossible to find a singular origin for the aversion we feel toward pointing with the finger or hand, it is safe to say that this is a custom which this is a useful place in our society, today as much as ever.


(Many thanks to Aldo Seaone, Michael A. Reifel, Mashtincala Ska and the thirty-some others whose comments and insight contributed useful insight on this topic).


Corina Roberts, Founder of Redbird

Author, The Wisdom Walkers

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