Manataka American Indian Council


















by William Tomkins


Introductory Notes




A - Abandon

I -   Ice

Q - Quarrel

B - Baby

J - Jealous

R - Rabbit

C - Cache

K - Keep

S - Sacred

D - Dakota

L - Lake

T - Tail

E - Eagle

M - Mad

U - Ugly

F - Face

N - Name

V - Vaccinate

G - Gallop

O - Oath

W - Wagon

H - Hail

P - Pack

Y - Year


Introductory Notes

When a boy, from 1884 to 1894, the author lived on the edge of the Sioux Indian Reservation in Dakota Territory, located at Fort Sully, Cheyenne Agency, Pierre, and surrounding sections.  He worked on the cow range and associated continuously with Indians.  He learned some of the Sioux language. and made a study of sign.   Since then, for many years, the interest has continued, and all known authorities on 'sign have been studied, as well as continued investigations with Blackfoot, Cheyenne, Sioux, Arapahoe, and other Indians of recognized sign-talking ability.

Of later years this effort has been inspired by the fact that there does not exist today any publication in print that can readily be obtained, covering exclusively the so-called Universal Indian Sign Language of the Plains Indians of North America. 

There is a sentiment connected with the Indian Sign Language that attaches to no other.   It is probably the first American language.  It is the first and only American universal language.  It may be the first universal language produced by any people.   It is a genuine Indian language of great antiquity.  It has a beauty and imagery possessed by few, if any, other languages.  It is the foremost gesture language that the world has ever produced.

The author lectured on Indian problems to many audiences, and at all times the keenest interest was shown in sign language demonstrations, and he was asked, hundreds of times, to make the record permanent, and to thereby preserve and perpetuate the original American language which otherwise is fast passing away.

This is shown by the fact that in 1885 Lewis F. Hadley, at that time a foremost authority on sign, claimed that as a result of extensive investigation he had determined that there were over 110,000 sign-talking Indians in the United States.  Today there is a very small percentage of this number, due to the inroads of modern education, and many of our Indians, with college and university training, can speak better English than they can talk sign.

This language was not created by anybody living today.  If it belongs to anybody it belongs to Americans, and it is for the purpose of having it carried on by the youth of the United States that this little volume is compiled.

Very few works on the Indian Sign Language have ever been published.  The first of importance was by Major Stephen H. Long in 1823, and gave about 100 signs.  It is long since out of print. in 1880 and 1881 Lieut.-Col. Garrick Mallery, writing for the Bureau of American Ethnology of the Smithsonian Institute, produced two valuable works, entitled, Gesture Signs and Signals of the North American Indians, and Sign Language Among the North American Indians.  These were partially illustrated and are now out of print.

The next, and by far the most authoritative, work on Indian Sign Language was by Captain Win. Philo Clark, U. S. Army.  He was with the army in the Indian country from 1875 to 1880, and made a deep study of sign, with the result that in 1880 he was detailed by his commanding general to devote his time exclusively to the production of a book on same.  He worked steadily on its preparation until 1884, when he died.   The work was published in 1885, a small edition, and is now out of print and extremely difficult to obtain.  It was not illustrated.  This being America's leading authority on Indian sign, and differentiating as to the true Indian and deaf and dumb codes, the author has consulted it extensively in checking against his personal knowledge and studies extending over many years.

In 1887, 1890 and 1893, three works on "Primary Gestures ... .. Sign Talk," and "Indian Sign Talk," were produced by Lewis F. Hadley, a missionary in the Indian Territory. The latter was the more important, and was produced in an edition of but 75 copies.  Of these but few copies are known to exist.  There is one in the Smithsonian Institute, one in the Library of Congress, one in the Metropolitan Library, New York, one owned by Ernest Thompson Seton, and one in the library of Prof. J. C. Elsom of the University of Wisconsin, and through the kindness of Prof. Elsom the author possesses a photostatic copy.  Next to the work by Capt. Clark, this is the foremost contribution to the study of Indian Sign Language, particularly as it contains several hundred graphic illustrations.

In 1918, Ernest Thompson Seton, the noted author of animal stories, compiled a splendid work, 282 pages and about 1700 signs, profusely illustrated.  The work was named "Sign Talk", and it does not pretend to adhere to Indian signs but includes many desirable signs of the deaf and dumb, and other sources, comprising a very fine work, of value to any library. 

Owing to the idiomatic form of the language there are certain fundamental differences which must be remembered.  Every interrogation is made either wholly or in part by the question sign. Instead of saying "Where are you going?" the signs would be, Question, You, Going.  Instead of "What do you want?" the signs would be Question, You, Want.

The sign for "question" covers the words What, Where, Why and When.  It is made to attract attention, to ask, to inquire, to examine.

The old-time Indian never used the terms "Good morning," or "Good evening," but had his own forms of greeting.  The Sioux vocal language uses the term "How Coula?" meaning "How do you do, my friend?"

The modern educated Indian uses the terms of the white man: so we believe that in this age the use of the terms, "Good morning" and "Good evening", should not be out of place in talking sign between Whites or Indians, particularly as these words exist in sign language and are generally understood.

In sign language it is not customary to ask "What is your name?" because it has a different way of asking this question, viz: "What are you called?" the signs for which are Question, You, Called

In speaking of the age of a person, or of past or future time, the general custom is to say, "So many winters."

For time of day, make sign for Sun, holding hand toward the point in the heavens where the sun is at the time indicated.  To specify a certain length of time during the day, indicate space on sky over which the sun passes.

Time is reckoned by the Indians as follows: Days, by nights or sleeps; months, by moons; and years, by winters.  Present time is expressed by Indians by the sign Now, and also by the sign Today, while occasionally, for emphasis, both signs are used.

What is understood to be the first person singular, is indicated by pointing to oneself.  The plural We is made by the signs Me and AllYou, All, means Ye; while He, All means They.

Gender is shown by adding the signs Man or Woman.

Past tense is shown by adding Long Time.

Such words or articles, as A, The, An, It, etc., are not used in sign language.   The syntax or sentence construction is naturally elemental and simple.  The verb is not placed as with us, but generally between the subject and the object.

One very wide difference between the Indian Sign Language and the signs used by deaf and dumb, is shown in the word Think.  The originators of the Indian signs thought that thinking or understanding was done with the heart, and made the sign "drawn from the heart".  Deaf mutes place extended fingers of the right hand against the forehead, to give the same meaning. 

The deaf use a great deal of facial contortion and grimace.  The Indian seldom uses facial expression, but maintains a composed and dignified countenance, the signs being sufficient of themselves.

There have been various confusing tribal differences of gesture in regard to Time, present, past and future, and we have therefore recorded the most logical.  See Time, Long Time, After, Before, Behind, Future and Past

For time of day make the sign for Sun, holding hand at point in sky where sun is supposed to be represented.  Indians estimate days by Sleeps, or Nights, months by Moons, and years by Winters.  In reckoning the age of a person the custom is to say "so many Winters."'

With the passage of time some gestures have changed, as can be readily seen by the following.  Before the introduction of the coffee-mill among the Indians, coffee was represented as a grain, or, more elaborately, by describing the process of preparing and drinking the beverage.  The little coffee-mill killed off these gestures at once, and the motion made, as though turning the crank of the mill to grind the parched berry, is today understood as meaning Coffee by practically all the plains Indians.

While not generally thought of as such, it is nevertheless a fact, that there is one composite group of over twenty million citizens of the United States who use a wonderfully comprehensive sign language every day, in fact could not get along without it, and. furthermore. they must use it or be guilty of violation of law.  I refer to the gestures made by the great army of automobile drivers to indicate "Right turn," "Left turn," "Stop," etc.

Clark says: "It is very difficult to describe the most simple movements of the hands in space, so that a person who had never seen the movements would, by following the descriptions, make the correct motions."  In order to offset the possibility of mistake in this regard, I have herein illustrated practically all of the principal or root signs, in a manner which it is hoped will be clear to all.

On account of the lucid explanation shown in the cuts, it has been found possible to make verbal description very brief, thereby preventing the confusion which results from lengthy details.

It should be remembered that this is in large measure a skeleton language, because synonyms in general are covered by the basic word.  For instance, the word Abandoned means Divorced; Thrown Away, Displaced; Deserted, Forsaken.

The word ABUSE can, according to its connection, mean Scold,  Ill-Treat, Upbraid, Defame, Detract.  The word Afraid can mean Shrink From,   Cowardly, Suspicion, Temerity, Dread, Nervous, Fearful. 

Some slight liberties in spelling have been taken by the author, in order to simplify pronunciation.  For instance, the word representing lodge, the conventional tent home, correctly speaking should be spelled Tipi: whereas phonetically the pronunciation is Teepee.  We have therefore used the latter spelling.

Sign language is so faithful to nature and so natural in its expression that it is not probable that it will ever die.  It has a practical utility, and should not be looked upon merely as a repetition of motions to be memorized from a limited list, but as a cultivated art, founded upon principles which can be readily applied by travelers.

Sign language may be used to advantage at a distance, which the eye can reach but not the ear, and still more frequently when silence or secrecy is desired.

The author's thanks are due to a number of people who have helped him with the sign language.  One of the first of these was William Fielder, a noted interpreter at Cheyenne Agency, Dakota; to Muzza Humpa (Iron Moccasin), and Cawgee Tonka (Big Crow), two Sioux living near Fort Sully, Dakota, and in general to many other Indians with whom he was acquainted at Cheyenne Agency, Pierre, Fort Pierre, and many places on the Sioux Reservation from 1885 to 1894. Mr. R. C. Block of San Diego, California, a well-educated Cheyenne Indian and a fine sign-talker, has checked my manuscripts and passed favorably upon them.

In particular I wish to thank Mr. J. L. Clark, a Blackfoot Indian sculptor now located at Glacier Park, Montana, and who with great patience and kindness has gone over the entire language with me.  Mr. Clark has the misfortune to be deaf and dumb, and this has developed him greatly as a sign talker.  He is America's foremost Indian sculptor, and carves bears and other wild animals from blocks of wood, true to life.

Every author of a work on sign language in the past 100 years has emphasized the importance of illustration of same, therefore, realizing this fact, I have given much time to an endeavor to secure a capable artist.  I have been most fortunate in securing the services of Mr. A. J. Stover of San Diego, an artist of wide experience and ability, and graduate of the Cleveland Art School.  To his earnest devotion to the work much credit for the book is due, and he certainly has my best thanks.  All of the sketches were posed by the author.

I have held back one thought for conclusion, and it is this: The beauty of Sign talk depends upon the manner of making the gestures.  Movements should not be angular or jerky, but should rather be rounded and sweeping in their rendition.  It is inspiring, and a thing of beauty, to witness a sign conversation between two capable Indian sign talkers.  They are living in many parts of our country and should be cultivated wherever found.

Every sign in this work is a true Indian sign.  Nothing has been borrowed from the deaf or from other sources, the compiler having adhered strictly to Indian origins.   This, of necessity, makes for a briefer book than would otherwise be possible, but a conscientious effort has been made to make the book exactly what it purports to be, viz: the Indian Sign Language.

This work is dedicated to my wife, Grace M. Tomkins, whose constant interest and kindness have made possible and a pleasure the studies and research of years, and jointly with her it is dedicated to the youth of the world, in the belief that through the study of this subject there may be developed in all countries a multitude of sign talkers as fluent, graceful and rapid as our Indians themselves, and, as Sir Robert hopes, to the general good of humanity.

The Indian Sign Language is the world's most easily learned language because it is elemental, basic, logical, and the signs in general are what should properly be made to illustrate the idea--the language being largely idiomatic--conveying ideas.

When you beckon with your finger you are saying the word Come; when you wave your hand outwards you say Go.  When you point upwards with your index finger you say Up.   When you point downwards you say Down.  When you elevate the flat right hand, you say High, and when you hold it down near the ground, you say Low.

All nations of earth have nodded the head for Yes, and have shaken it for No.  If you will nod the right index finger beside the head, you say Yes; and if, waist high, you simply turn the right hand over, you say No. Good means "level with the heart," and, therefore, if you will swing the right flat hand out in a semi-circle from the heart towards the right you say the word Good. Bad means "thrown away."   Therefore, the motion of expelling something downwards with the right hand makes the word Bad.  When you point your right thumb at your breast, you say Me.  When you point your right index finger at the person you are with, you say You.  When you point the same finger at someone else in the party, you say Him or Her.

When you point the separated first and second fingers of the right hand out in front of the eyes, you say See or Look.  When you pass the partly closed right hand downwards past the mouth, you say Eat or Food.  When you elevate the cupped hand near the mouth, you say Drink; and when, waist high, you make as though dipping a handful of something with cupped hand, you say Water.

The flat hands passed alternately one beyond the other means Walk, and the same sign made more rapidly means Run.  To incline the head to right, towards the palms of both hands, means Sleep, and to pass the flat hand slightly outwards from the chin means Speak or Talk.  To cup the right hand behind the right ear means to Listen. The right index finger pointed upwards beside the face means Man, or "the upright one"; and to pass the slightly hooked fingers of the right hand downwards over the hair means Woman, the basic conception being "she combs her hair."  Day means the opening up and Night means the closing over, and the signs are simple and logical. 

The thumb and index finger of right hand held in an incomplete circle and pointed at the sky means Sun.  The same sign held flat near the waist means Money--a coin; the same sign with hand laid on the breast means a Medal, and if made against the left shoulder means a Brand, while if tipped to the month like a cup it means Want, or "I am thirsty for." The fingers curved and pointing up, held near the ground, naturally means Grass.

The same sign, waist high, means Brush, while one hand held out in front at height of shoulder, fingers all pointing up, means a Tree, both hands held similarly means a Forest.   The same two hands held close to the breast means People.  One fist held up out in front of breast means a Mountain, while both fists means a chain of Mountains.   Counting is indicated by the fingers, starting with the little finger of right hand.

As all articles and small qualifying adjectives are left entirely out--this being a skeleton language of ideas--a smaller vocabulary or code is used, the verbs and nouns being almost enough to convey the intelligence. 

Remember that 85% of all signs are made with the right hand.  I believe the foregoing forty words will prove my opening statement that the language is entirely logical and elemental.  I would suggest that you go over each of these words carefully, by checking them against the illustrations and their explanations in the book. 

Splendid results in the study of sign have been attained by those who, as they go along, occasionally have a session with someone else who is interested in sign.  If you are in scouting, you might start with a few available scouts or scout masters, otherwise with a few friends, and meet with them once a week for a definite session for an hour or two.  You will be surprised at the way the interest and inquiry thus caused will increase your own knowledge, and how quickly the others will commence to bring out ideas that will greatly help you.

After one or two meetings of the little club, require everybody to make up and bring to the next meeting some short phrases or sentences in the sign language.  Working carefully along these lines you will undoubtedly be gratified at the advancement you will make.

A Click on picture to enlarge

ABANDON (meaning: throw away).  With both closed hands held at left side near breast, drop them downwards and to rear, at same time opening them as though expelling some article.

ABOARD (meaning; sitting down on).  Hold left hand flat, ten inches from body, palm up.  Place right fist on left palm, with little finger down.

ABOVE (meaning one thing above another).  Both hands backs up in front of body, the right resting on the left.  Then raise the right more or less above the left.

ABSENT.  Make signs for SIT and NO.

ABUSE (meaning: throwing lies against one).  Bring right 2 hand in front of mouth; move the hand sharply outwards or towards person indicated; repeat.


ACCOST.  Make the sign for QUESTION.

ACCOST (meaning: to question).  When party is at some distance hold right hand well up and wave to right and left two or three times.

ACHE (meaning: the darting sensations of pain).  Push the right index finger over and parallel to the part afflicted; then make the sign for SICK.

ACROSS. The flat left hand, with back up, is held about twelve inches out from body.  Then pass the partially compressed right hand over left on a curve.

ADD.  Place right flat hand on palm of left in front of body, and lift them upwards several times in moves of about 3 inches, to indicate piling up.

ADVANCE.  Point right flat hand forward, palm down, ten inches from body.  Bring left hand in same position but between right hand and body.   Then move both hands forward in slight jerks.

ADVANCE GUARD (The person in front).  Left flat hand ten inches from center of body.  Right 1 hand in front of left pointing upwards, then change to 2 hand, and move around to indicate LOOKING.

AFRAID (meaning: shrinks back from).  Bring both 1 hands well out in front of breast; bring hands back a few inches and slightly downwards, while curving index fingers.  Usually only right hand is used in making this sign.

AFRAID OF NO ONE.  Point right index in several directions; then make signs for AFRAID and NO.

AFTER, (or FUTURE TIME.) Make sign for TIME, then advance the right 1 hand past and beyond the left hand.

AFTERNOON.  Form an incomplete circle with thumb and index of right hand.  Then raise toward a point directly overhead, and sweep down towards the horizon.

AGE.  Indicate by showing number of winters.  (See WINTER.)

AGENT (meaning: Indian Agent).  Make signs for WHITE MAN, CHIEF, GIVE, and FOOD.


AHEAD.  Make the sign for BEFORE.

AID.  Make signs for WORK and WITH.

AIM (meaning: "From the manner of using weapon").   If with rifle-aim accordingly; if with bow and arrow--bring hands up before breast with motion of drawing bow string.

AIRPLANE.  Extend both arms straight out to each side, sway body imitating motion of plane; then swing hand in a curve from waist towards the sky.  Then sign BIRD and EQUAL (a flexible modern sign, understood by Indians).

ALIGHT (to).  Indicate whether from horse, wagon, etc.   Then sweep 2 hand towards the ground.

ALIKE (meaning: that 2 people look alike).  Make the signs for FACE and SAME.

ALIVE (meaning: walking about).  Bring right 1 hand 10 inches from breast, then by wrist action make 3 zigzags.

ALL.  Move right flat hand in horizontal circle from right to left, breast high.

ALL GONE.  Point both extended hands at each other in front of breast.  Then loosely wipe ends of fingers of right hand across palm and fingers of left, and vice versa.

ALLIANCE.  Make sign for PEACE, and if for war purposes add signs GOING, WAR, WITH.

ALL RIGHT.  Make sign for ALL and sign for GOOD.

Click on picture to enlarge

ALONE.  Hold right 1 hand upwards in front of neck.   Then move outwards in sinuous motion.

ALWAYS.  Make the sign for FOREVER.

AMBITIOUS.  Make sign for the person and sign for PUSH.

AMONG.  Bring extended left 5 hand ten inches from breast, then weave right index through fingers of left.

ANCESTORS.  Most Indians usually make sign for OLD PEOPLE.  Some add LONG TIME.

AND.  Make the sign for WITH.

ANGRY (meaning: mind twisted).  Place closed right hand close to forehead, with back of thumb touching same; move hand slightly outwards and by wrist action give small twisting motion.


ANNOY (meaning: fluttering heart).  Make the sign for HEART.  Then flutter the 5 hand over the heart.

ANNUITIES.  Make the sign for BLANKET, for FOOD and for DISTRIBUTE.

ANOTHER. Place compressed right hand over left breast, sweep hand upwards, outwards to right and downwards ending with back down.

ANTELOPE (meaning: pronged horns of animals).  Hold both 4 hands beside head, palms forward.

APACHE--Indian (meaning: Elk horn fiddlers).  Make the sign for Indian, then with right index rub the left index from end of finger to wrist and back again--2 or 3 times.

APPAREL.  Pass both 4 hands over such position of body as is necessary to explain the clothing.

ARAPAHOE--Indian (meaning: MOTHER of all Tribes).  First make sign for Indian, then with compressed right hand tap left breast two or three times, which is the MOTHER sign.

ARISE (meaning: to get up).  Right 1 hand with back down, pointed to front, raise mostly by wrist action until back is outwards and index points upwards.

ARRANGE.  Make signs for WORK and FIX.

ARREST (meaning: to seize hold of and tie at wrist).   With both hands in front of body make as though seizing hold of a person.   Then cross the wrists, hands closed.

ARRIVE HERE. Place flat left hand against left breast with back out. Hold right hand one foot from body, then bring same briskly against back of left.

ARRIVE THERE. This is the reverse of previous sign.  The left flat hand is held out in front; the right 1 hand held against breast, strikes out to palm of left.

ARROW (meaning: drawing an arrow from left hand).  Near left breast, hold left cupped hand, then indicate drawing an arrow from same.

ARTILLERY MAN.  Make sign for WHITE MAN, for SOLDIER, for WITH, and for CANNON.

ASCEND.  Indicate in what way and what was ascended; for instance, a mountain, sign same with left hand, place right 1 hand with index on left wrist and gradually move same upward.

ASHAMED (meaning: drawing blanket over face).  Both flat hands-opposite either cheek, backs outward.  Cross right hand to left and left hand to right.

ASTONISH.  Palm of left hand held over mouth.  Many Indians also raise right hand.  This gesture denotes great surprise, great pleasure, or great disappointment.

ASTRAY.  Make the sign for HIDE.

ASTRIDE.  Separate first and second fingers of right hand and set them astride of upright flat left hand.

ATTACK.  Make sign for CHARGE.

ATTEMPT.  Make the signs for WORK and PUSH.


AUNT.  Make signs for FATHER and SISTER, or MOTHER and SISTER.

AUTOMOBILE. Make the sign for WAGON and then imitate holding steering wheel.  (Another modern sign understood by Indians.)  A Cheyenne Indian used the signs WAGON, BY ITSELF, GO.

AUTUMN (meaning: falling leaf time).  Make sign for TREE, for LEAF.  Then let right hand pass slowly downwards to right with wavy motion.

AVOID. Hold I hands in front of shoulders pointing upwards.   Pass right hand to left and left hand to right and have them miss in passing.

AWL.  From manner of using same in sewing with sinew.   Use right index as an awl and bore over left index.

AXE. Hold right elbow with left hand, extend right arm with hand held flat, and make as though chopping.