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

B Click on picture to enlarge

BABY.  Place right closed hand across left wrist, palm side up, in position of holding a baby.

BACHELOR.  Make the signs for MAN, MARRY and NO.

BACON. Bring extended left hand in front of breast pointing outwards; with right thumb and index clasp base of little finger and rub towards wrist and back again 2 or 3 times; then make the sign for EAT.

BAD (meaning: thrown away).  Hold right fist near breast.  Throw it out and down to right, and while doing so open the hand.

BAG. Hold left hand in form of opening of bag; then pass compressed right hand into opening.  Finish by indicating sides of bag.   Demonstrate a large bag by inside of circled arm.

BALD. Make the sign for HAIR.  Touch top of head with flat hand.  Then make sign WIPED OUT.

BARRACKS. Make the signs for WHITE SOLDIER and HOUSE.

BASHFUL.  Make sign for ASHAMED.

BASIN (meaning: depression in the ground).  With both 4 hands form a partial circle, then left hand holds position while compressed right hand scoops the ground.

BASKET.  Make sign for KETTLE.  Then interlock fingers to denote manner of construction.

BATTLE. Make sign for FIGHT, then sign for SHOOT, with both hands pointing towards each other.

BATTLESHIP. Make sign for BOAT, for FIRE, for BIG, and for BIG GUNS. (A flexible modern sign-understood by Indians.)

BAY. (Water). Make sign for WATER, then with right 4 hand out in front of body indicate form or shape of bay.

BAYONET. Make sign for GUN.  Then place both 1 hands alongside one another, right index projecting beyond.

BE.  Make the sign for SIT.

BEAR. The Crows and some other tribes hold partly closed hands alongside of head to indicate large ears--Others add to this a clawing motion with hands in front clawing downwards.

BEARD. For chin whiskers hang compressed hand below chin-for other kinds of whiskers place hands accordingly.

BEAUTIFUL. The preference seems to be to pass right flat hand downwards over face, then make sign for GOOD-some tribes hold up left hand and look into it as into a mirror.

BEAVER (meaning: tail of beaver striking mud or water).   Hold left flat hand in front of body, right flat hand below same, then back of right hand strikes up against left palm sharply.

BED (meaning: spread blankets).  Left hand, palm up, fingers extended pointing right front, close to left breast, right hand palm up, on same plane and close to left--move right hand well out in front and to right as though spreading blanket; add sign for SLEEP.

BEFORE, (or PAST TIME.) Point right and left I hands, to left, tandem, in position of TIME, then draw right hand towards the right and rear.

BEGIN.  Make the sign for PUSH.

BEHIND. (Sense of time.) Make the sign for BEFORE, showing length of time by space between the hands.

BELOW. Both hands backs up in front of body, the left resting on the right; then drop the right more or less below the left to indicate desired distance.

BELT.  Use the hands as though clasping on a belt.

BESIDE or BY. Make sign for WITH.

BET (meaning: to gamble).  Inasmuch as the betting assumes card playing, the sign is made as though placing 2 stacks of money or chips.

BEYOND. Bring extended left hand, back up in front of body about ten inches, fingers pointing to right; bring extended right hand, back up, between left and body, same height, fingers pointing to left; swing the right hand outwards and upwards in curve beyond left hand, turning right hand back down in movement.

Click on picture to enlarge

BIBLE. Make the signs for BOOK, MEDICINE, and GREAT.

BICYCLE. A modern sign, like WAGON but with index fingers tandem, then add MAN, ABOARD, GO. Indians vary modern signs.

BIG. Bring compressed 5 hands in front of body, close together, palms in, fingers extended flat, upright, pointing to front, separate the hands-bringing them apart, but keeping them opposite each other.

BIRD (meaning: wings).  With flat hands at shoulders, imitate motion of wings. Small birds rapidly, large birds slowly.

BITTER. Touch the tongue with tip of index of right hand and make the sign for BAD.

BLACK. The method most used by Indians is to point to something black.  Have seen Indians simply use sign for COLOR as indicating BLACK; others make the sign for COLOR and touch hair or eyebrows.

BLACK FEET--Indians.  Make sign for MOCCASIN and for BLACK.

BLANKET (meaning: wrapping about shoulders).  Hold the closed hands at height of shoulders near neck, move the right hand to left, left to right, closing movement when wrists are crossed, right hand nearest body.

BLESS YOU.  Raise both hands, palm outward, hands pointing front and upward, lower hands several inches, then push them slightly towards person.

BLIND.  Place palmar surface of ends of fingers against closed eyes, then sign LOOK and NO.

BLOOD. Bring right hand in front of mouth, first and second fingers against nostrils, move hand downwards with tremulous motion.

BLUE. Make the sign for COLOR, then point to something blue in color, preferably the sky when clear.

BLUFF.  Make the sign for MOUNTAIN, raising or lowering fist to indicate height.

BOAT.  Hollowed hands held together indicate shape of boat, push out in front to show direction; for canoe make as though paddling; for row boat as though rowing; for steamboat add sign for FIRE.

BOIL (to).  Make sign for WATER or FOOD; then sign for KETTLE and FIRE.

BONE. Make sign for the animal for DIE, LONG TIME.   Touch part of body that produced bone, then point to something WHITE.

BONNET (war). Carry extended hands from front to rear alongside of head, then carry right hand from crown of head down to below body.

BOOK. Hold both hands in front of body, side by side, palms up, and look at them as if reading.  Have seen Indians place palms together and open hands as though opening a book.

BORROW.  Make the sign for GIVE (to you or to me) then BY and BY or little while, and then GIVE--meaning, "Give to me a little while and I will give it back."  They have no such word as loan.

BOW (meaning: bending bow to shoot). Left closed hand well out in front of body as though holding bow.  Right closed hand held just back of same draws the bow string.

BOWL. Indicate shape with curved hands, held close together.

BOY. Make the sign for WHITE MAN or INDIAN, as the case may be, then bring right hand down on right side to height of boy, index finger pointing up.

Click on picture to enlarge

BRAIN. Touch forehead with first 2 fingers of right hand.

BRAND. With index and thumb of right hand, form partial circle, other fingers closed--then press hand against left shoulder for shoulder brand, or against hip for hip a brand.

BRAVE. Hold left fist 8 inches from center of body, bring right fist six inches above and a little in front of same.  Strike downwards with right fist, by elbow action, second joints of right hand passing close to knuckles of left. Some Indians make the signs HEART and STRONG.

BREAD. Make sign for FLOUR.  Then clap hands together as though making a cake, right hand on top; then reverse and repeat, left hand on top. The Indian method of making small fried bread.

BREAK (meaning: breaking a stick held horizontally in the closed hands).  Hold closed hands together, backs up, then twist right to right, left to left, as though breaking a stick.


BRIDGE. Both flat hands, backs down, pointing to front, then make sign for RIVER and sign for ACROSS.

 BRING. Move the right 1 hand well in front of body, index extended, then draw hand towards body, while curving index finger.

BROAD.  Make the sign for BIG.

BROTHER.  Bring tips of extended and touching first and second fingers of right hand against lips, fingers horizontal, back up, carry hand straight out from mouth, then make sign for MAN.

BROTHER-IN-LAW.  Cross arms on breasts, left arm inside, hands extended, then strike downwards in front with right hand.

BROOK. Make the sign for RIVER and SMALL.

BROWN. Make the sign for COLOR, then point to something BROWN.

BRUSH.  Hold the hands as for GRASS, but with arms extended outward from the waist.

BUFFALO (meaning: horns of buffalo).  Bring partly closed hands, palms inward, close to sides of head.  Raise hands slightly until wrists are on edges of head, and carry slightly forward.

BUFFALO ROBE.  Make sign for BUFFALO and for BLANKET.

BURN.  Make the sign for FIRE.  Then indicate what was burned or injured by the fire.  If entirely consumed add WIPED OUT.

BURY.  Make the signs for BLANKET, WRAP and DIG.

BUT. Make the sign for PERHAPS.

BUY.  Make sign for MONEY and for EXCHANGE.

BY AND BY. Make the sign for FUTURE, advancing the right hand past and beyond the left hand. Some Indians make the sign for WAIT.

BY ITSELF.  Hold extended right hand in front of right breast, with back down and fingers pointing to front; by wrist action strike the hand to left and towards body with a jerk, repeating two or three times.  This is a metaphoric idiom used with other gestures.  A gift with this sign becomes a "free gift."  No gift expected in return.  It also means FREEDOM, ALONE and SOLITARY.


CACHE. Make the sign for HIDE.

CALL OR CALLED.  This is an important and much used sign.  Use right hand with thumb touching index.  Then snap out index finger as in word TALK, but continue extending index.  This is used for "Question you called"-meaning, "what are you called" or "what is your name."

CAMP.  Make the sign for TEEPEE.  Then with arms held about horizontal in front of body form with thumbs and indexes an incomplete circle, tips 1 inch apart.  Lower the hands briskly few inches by elbow action.

CAMPFIRE. Make as though gathering something.  Then make the signs for WOOD, FIRE, SIT and TALK.

CANDID.  Make the sign for TRUE, for DAY and GOOD, indicating openness and clearness like the day, truth and goodness.

CANDLE. Hold left 1 hand in front of left shoulder, index pointing upwards.  Make sign for FIRE with right hand pointed at left index and show length of candle on left arm.

CANDY. Make sign for SUGAR.  Then hold left index vertically in front of body and with right index indicate stripes on same.

CANNON (meaning: large gun).  Make sign for GUN and for LARGE.

CANNOT (meaning: cannot go through, or bounced back).   Hold left flat hand edgewise, well out in front of body.  Point right index at center of left, then move right index forward until it strikes left palm, then bounces off and down to right.

CANOE. Make sign for BOAT, then with curved right hand held well out in front of body, indicate the curved bow of canoe.

CANYON (also GORGE, DEFILE, CHASM, GAP) (meaning: mountain, both sides).  Hold both closed hands in front of face-several inches apart, then, still holding left hand in position, make as though to pass the right hand through the chasm.

CARDS. In nearly closed left hand make as though holding a deck of cards, then with right hand indicate dealing same to several players.

CARTRIDGE. Hold right 1 hand back nearly up, in front of body, index extended horizontally and pointing to front, thumb pressing against side of index, with tip just back of second joint indicating cartridge.  Sometimes signs for GUN and SHOOT are also made.

CARRY.  Place thumb side of right fist against right shoulder, then thumb side of left fist against right fist--in other words tandem--stoop slightly forward as though carrying a heavy bag or pack.

CAT ( meaning: flat nose).  With right thumb and index touching nose, tilt same slightly upwards, also indicate size of animal.

CATCH.  Make the sign for TAKE.

CATTLE (meaning: spotted buffalo).  Make signs for BUFFALO and SPOTTED.


Click on picture to enlarge

CENTER.  Make horizontal circle with index fingers and thumbs.  Then holding left in same position place point of right index in circle just formed.

CERTAIN. Make the signs for I, KNOW and GOOD.

CHARGE (meaning: to charge against others).  With backs up place closed hands near right shoulder, move hands sharply to front and left, at same time snapping them open.

CHARGE (meaning: charging against us).  Reverse the above by holding fists well out YOU in front and snapping hands open towards face.

CHEAT.  Make signs for LYING and STEALING.

CHEYENNE--Indian (meaning: finger choppers).  Make sign for INDIAN, then extend left index and with right index make as though to cut or slash same.  A sign of mourning.

CHICKEN.  Make sign for BIRD, sign for RED.  Then place extended right hand on top of head, indicating comb.

CHIEF (meaning: elevated, rising above others and looking down at them).  Hold right hand at side pointing upwards, raise hand in gradual circle as high as top of head, then arch toward front and downward.

CHILD. Make the sign for MALE or FEMALE.  Then hold compressed right hand upward at right side and drop to the height of the child.

CHIPPEWA--Indian.  Make the signs for TREES and PEOPLE.

CHOP.  Bring right flat hand near right breast, then by elbow action strike downwards to left, then reverse to left breast and strike downwards to right.

CHURCH.  Make signs for GOD and HOUSE.

CIGAR. Make sign for TOBACCO.  Then lay both indexes horizontally alongside of each and rotate one around the other (meaning: it's rolled).


CITY.  Make the sign for HOUSE and for MANY.

Click on picture to enlarge

CLOSE (meaning: draw near).  Slightly curved right hand well out in front of right shoulder, draw hand downwards and in towards body, holding hand flat and up-right.

CLOUD.  Hold extended hands horizontally, backs up, in front and higher than head, indexes touching; swing hands downwards in curve to each side, to signify dome of sky.

COAL.  Make signs for HARD, FIRE, and GOOD.

COAT. Place spread hands on breasts then carry them down as though over garment.

COFFEE (meaning: grinding coffee in mill).  Extend left hand, back down, in front of body; bring closed right hand few inches over left and move in small horizontal circle, as though turning a crank.

COLD.  Both closed hands close to front of body, height of shoulder, body slightly bent.  Give tremulous motion to hands and arms as though shivering from cold.

COLOR. Rub tips of right hand fingers in circle on back of left.  Do not confuse this with the sign for Indian which is made by rubbing back of left hand with flat palmar surfaces of all the right hand fingers.  A popular sign with all Indians when designating a color, is to look around, locate the color desired, and point to it.

COLOR (2) (spotted, mottled, brindle, roan).  Rub the backs of the hands together.  This represents any spotted or off color.


COMANCHE--Indian (meaning: snake).  Make the sign for INDIAN and for SNAKE, pushing right 1 hand outwards with sinuous motion.

COME.  Extend right 1 hand then sweep same toward face.

COMMENCE.  Make the sign for PUSH.

COMPASS.  Points of the compass are shown by the way an Indian records the sun.  Thumb and index of right hand held across at left side indicates the sun rising in the east.  In this manner the right side would indicate west, straight ahead would indicate south, and conversely would be north.  A somewhat modern conception given by a leading Sioux authority.

CONCEAL.  Make sign for HIDE.

CONGRESS.  Make sign for BIG WHITE CHIEF'S HOUSE.   Sign for BRING, from several directions, and sign for SITTING IN COUNCIL.

COOK.  Make sign for MAKE (or WORK) and EAT (or FOOD).

CORN (meaning: shelling the corn).  Project left index and thumb as though they were an car of corn, then twist them with right index and thumb.

CORRAL. Make sign for TREE, lock fingers of right and left hands, then indicate circular enclosure by bringing them separately left and right in semi-circle.

COUNCIL (meaning: sitting in a circle and talking).  Closed hands well out in front of body, little fingers touching, move hands in horizontal circle towards body to meet with backs to body--then add TALK to right and left.

COUNTING.  The system of tens is universally used by our Indians in enumeration.  In counting from one to ten, the usual way is to hold the closed right hand in front, the back towards and about height of shoulder, edges of hand pointing up; for one, the little finger is extended; two, the third; three, second; four, index; five, thumb; keeping fingers extended, separated, and pointing upwards; six, bring the closed left hand at same height, equally advanced, and near right, and extend the thumb; seven, extend left index; eight, second finger; nine, third finger; ten, little finger.

For twenty, open and close both hands twice.

Many tribes indicate a number of tens by first making the sign for ten, then hold extended left hand horizontally in front of body, and draw the tip of extended right index from base over the back of each finger to its tip, each motion of this kind representing ten and going as far as fifty; then holding the right hand in similar manner, mark the backs of its thumb and fingers with tip of left index to indicate from sixty to one hundred.

For counting hundreds hold up both 5 hands with both thumbs touching, hands held near right shoulder; then swing in a circle across to left and downwards.

A number of hundreds are counted on backs of hands same as in counting tens, first indicating that you are now dealing with hundreds.

COUNTRY. Make signs by pointing to the ground with right 1 hand; then spread both hands low to right and left.

COWARD. Point to or make sign for the person, and then make sign for AFRAID.

COYOTE.  Make sign for WOLF and for SMALL.

CRAZY (meaning: brain in a whirl).  Bring compressed right hand pointing upwards close to forehead.  Turn the hand so as to make small horizontal circle, turning up-wards to left with the sun. (To turn to right would mean MEDICINE).

CROSS (meaning: sulky). Make the signs HEART and BAD

CROSS (meaning to cross a stream). Make the sign ACROSS.

CROW--Indian.  Two signs have been used in this connection, for that in most general use sign BIRD and INDIAN.  A less used sign as follows: first make the sign for INDIAN, then hold fist above forehead, palm out, to indicate their manner of dressing the hair, i. e., pompadour.

CRY (meaning: tears).  With both 1 hands at eyes indicate that tears are flowing by tracing their course down the face.

CUNNING. Make sign for WOLF.

CUTTING UP.  With flat left hand, back upwards, held in front of left breast, use right flat hand as though to cut slice off palm of left, and repeat.