Manataka American Indian Council
Origins of the Smoke Signal
By Grandmother Selma
A gentle......almost magical.....puff of smoke rises up toward the clouds and heavens, floating, suspended in space, lifting then gradually disappearing, being consumed by the earth surrounding it and the breath of the wind that carries it.
An ancient skill of communication and survival, one that is simplistic in design, yet, universal versatility. A skill of the Native American Indians, also of the ancient Chinese and presently used by the Boy Scouts of America.
The " sending station" was a high location that would be visible from another high location. The individual sender laid flammable material ( logs etc. ) on a fire bed that was of controlled size and design. Many of these were referred to as " fire bowls in earth Mother".
For the most part the signals or code was pre-arranged between the sender and the receiver. There was no universal code for shapes, frequency or multiples of puffs.
To have established a "set" series of signals equating to consistent meaning would have allowed enemies to " read" the communication as well.
" Fire bowls" have been located and studied on distinct hill tops and are saucer shaped depressions, round or square, five to eight feet across and lined with field stones.
The size, shape and depth of the " fire bowl" was in direct relation to the amount and type of " fuel" to burn to produce the needed smoke.
The stone lining aided in controlling the fire from escape and also provided " props" or "braces" which poles could be laid across with either skins or blankets attached, allowing for control and manipulation of the smoke to produce "puffs" of visible shape and size.
Some of these " fire bowls" or pits have been mapped and studied as they lay in close proximity to the " Warrior Path" that ran between encampments of Shawnee near the Scioto River and Ohio River near Richmondale. This ridge and " path" of location ranges from elevations of six hundred and nine hundred feet.
In general Smoke Signals could signal danger, warning, call the people to a common meeting area, and transmitting news. Smoke could be made to curl in spirals, ascend in puffs or circles, even parallel lines. Some signals resembled the letter V or Y and some were zigzag. There were a few overall accepted meanings ..... as three puffs in rapid succession usually indicated danger.
Amongst the Apache, the sighting of one puff quickly losing its geometric shape indicated that a strange party had been spotted approaching. If those " puffs" were frequent and rapidly repeated, it transmitted the message that " the stranger approaching" was in fact many in number and armed.
The burning of wood has always been symbolic of transformation. Changing one tangible form into another or others. In this case usually wood being transformed to new elements, ash, lye, smoke, heat and water vapor. Isn't it somewhat amazing that indigenous peoples utilized one aspect of this transformation of the smoke to communicate amongst the people even over long distance?
When the sender " released" the message the receiver would then often times, become the new sender to another receiver, often many times over.
Therefore, in this fashion the information could be transmitted over vast geographic areas with accuracy.
Smoke Signals became Indian telegraphy.
Resource: Diary of A Visit of Inspection of the Texas Missions made by : Fray Gaspar Jose de Solis, year 1767-1768 translated by Margaret K. Kress with introduction by Mattie A. Hatcher, Southwestern Historical Quarterly. Vol.35.no.1., July 1931