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




NAME.  In asking the name of a person the Indian method would be to make the signs QUESTION, YOU, CALLED--"What are you called?" meaning: "What are you named?"

NARROW.  Make the sign for FEW.

NAVAJO--Indian (meaning: makes striped blankets): Make the signs for WORK, BLANKET and STRIPED.

NEAR.  Make the sign for CLOSE.

NEEDLE.  Make the sign for SEW.

NEGRO (meaning: black white man).  Make sign for WHITE MAN, and sign for BLACK.

NEW.  Make the signs for OLD, NO, and GOOD.

NEWSPAPER.  Hold the flat hands side by side, palm up; then move hands apart as though spread out, and sign LOOK.  To this I have known an Indian to add the signs WRITING and TALK.

NEXT YEAR.  You must indicate the season.  If in winter you wish to say, "next summer," make signs for WINTER, for FINISHED, and for GRASS.  Showing summer, high grass.  If in Summer you wish to say, "next Winter," make signs for AUTUMN, for FINISHED, and for WINTER.

NEZ PERCE-Indian (meaning: pierced noses).  Hold right index slightly under and to right of nose, then push index across to left below the nose.

NIGHT (meaning: earth covered over).  Extend flat hands in front of body, ten inches apart, backs up, right hand a little higher; move right hand to left and left to right turning hands a trifle by wrist action.

N0. Hold extended flat right hand, back up, in front of body, fingers pointing to left and front; swing the hand to right and front while turning hand so that thumb is up and back downwards, then return to first position.

NOON. With right thumb and index forming incomplete circle one inch between tips, show position of sun overhead.

NOTIFY. Make the sign for TALK.

NOW.  Bring extended index finger of right hand about 8 inches in front of face, and without stopping carry it quickly several inches to front, stopping with a rebound.



OATH.  In early times there were several ways of imposing this obligation.  Pointing to the zenith and the earth was an oath with many tribes.  An ancient oath, with eyes and hands (flat) upraised, meant "God see my hands, they are clean."  Holding up the right hand is now understood by all Indians, and is called "The white man's way."

OBEY.  Make the sign for LISTEN.

OCEAN.  Make the signs for WATER and BIG.

Click on picture to enlarge

OFFICER.  Make the sign for CHIEF.

OFTEN (MANY TIMES, REPEAT).  Hold left forearm horizontally in front of left breast, pointing to front; then with right index touch left forearm several times commencing at wrist and passing upwards towards elbow.


OLD (meaning: walking with a stick).  Hold closed right hand, back to right, twelve inches in front of right shoulder, at height of breast; move hand upwards, to front, downwards and back to first position in a curve.  Repeat motion.

OPPOSITE.  Point both extended index fingers toward each other, at same height, other fingers and thumbs closed.

OSAGE-Indian (meaning: shaved heads).  Bring backs of extended hands alongside of head, fingers pointing to rear; move hands downwards as though cutting the hair with lower edges of hands. Repeat this.

OTTER (meaning: decorating the hair).  Hold right hand near top of right ear, thumb, index and second fingers extended together; lower the hand while making a small spiral with tips of fingers.  There is a general custom among all plains Indians of decorating the hair with strips of otter skin.

OUTSIDE.  Make sign to show whether outside of teepee, house or camp; then with left hand still in position make sign for HERE with right hand, beyond or outside of the left hand.

OVER.  Make the sign for ACROSS.

OVERTAKE.  Extend left flat hand with palm outwards, fingers pointing to front and up; hold right 1 hand near breast, palm outwards, index pointing front and up; till it touches left.

OWL (meaning: big eyes).  Make sign for BIRD; then make circles of thumbs and indexes of both hands and place them in front of eyes.

OWN.  Make the sign for POSSESSION. 


PACK.  Hold partly compressed left hand in front of body, back out; then with partly compressed right hand pat upper surface of left; then pat back of left; then reverse and in same manner pat Tight hand with left.  This represents loading a pack animal.

PADDLE. Make the sign for BOAT, and indicate use of paddle.

PAINT.  With fingers extended rub the cheeks and front of face with palm of right hand.

PALSY.  Bring the hands close to breast, back up, then shake them with a quivering motion.

PARADE. Make sign for WHITE MAN, for SOLDIER, and for WALK. Sometimes add RIDING HORSE BACK, and GO.

PART.  If one-half, make sign for HALF; if more or less indicate accordingly.

PARTNER.  Make sign for BROTHER.  Indians seem averse to partnership, but often adopt a man as friend or brother.

PAST.  (Sense of time-meaning time behind.)  Make the sign for BEFORE.

PAWNEE (meaning: Wolf).  Make the sign for INDIAN, then hold right 2 hand, fingers extended, close to right shoulder, palm outwards; carry hand slightly upwards and six inches to front.

PAYMASTER.  Make the signs for MONEY and CHIEF.

PEACE. Clasp the hands in front of body, with back of left hand down.

PEAK.  Compress fingers of right hand tightly together, cone shape; then raise hand in front of body, back outwards.

PEOPLE.  Right index, shoulder high, moving up and down as shown.  Have seen Indians use both 5 hands, near breast, backs out.

PERHAPS (meaning: two hearts).  Hold right 2 hand over heart, pointing to left, fingers separated; then by forearm movement roll the hand back and forth.  When expressing many conflicting emotions or many doubts, vibrate or roll the extended 5 hand. This would represent deep consideration.

PHONOGRAPH.  With right hand make as though to wind it up; then show turning disk; then make signs for LISTEN, and GOOD. (A flexible modern sign, well understood by Indians.)

PICKET--To picket a horse (meaning: to drive picket pin in the ground). Make the sign for HORSE, for TIMBER; then bring closed left hand, thumb up, in front of body, and strike it a few times with closed right hand.

PIPE (meaning: holding long wooden stem).   Bring the hands in front of neck, backs down, left hand four inches from chin, right hand several inches in front of left; move hands to front and downwards short distance, as though lowering pipe; then repeat. (Stem is held between thumb and index.)

PISTOL. Make the sign for GUN; then with both hands indicate "six", for six shooter, by holding up right hand, fingers and thumb extended, separated, and holding up left thumb, left fingers closed.

PITY--towards another.  Both 1 hands, backs up, carried outward towards another person.

PITY ME.  Hold both 1 hands, well out, and draw them to the breast.

PLANT.  Make sign for CORN, for WORK; then with right hand near shoulder make as though dropping seed in the ground.

PLENTY.  Hold extended 5 hands well out to right and left; then bring them in together as though gathering something up.

PONY.  Make the signs for HORSE and LITTLE, showing height with left flat hand.

POOR (in possession).  Hold up left I hand, back out, index pointed upwards; then with right index make as though to scrape left index bare, striking from tip of finger downwards.

POOR (meaning: flesh clawed off).  Bring curved hands close to center of body and make as though to claw the flesh off the ribs, first with right then with left.  Repeat.

PORCUPINE.  Show size of animal; then point up with fingers as in grass; then indicate working on moccasin.

PORTRAIT.  Hold left hand same as in MIRROR, and with right hand indicate as though making sketch on left palm.

POSSESSION (for such words as HIS, HERS, YOURS, MINE, ETC.).   Hold closed fist in front of neck, back to right; swing hand slightly downwards and by wrist action have thumb point to front.

POWDER.  Hold left flat hand in front of body, back down, and rub tips of fingers and thumb of right hand slightly above left palm.

PRAIRIE.  Extend both hands out in front, about height of face, touching, palms up, fingers to front; then separate hands moving right to right, left to left on an even plane.

PRAIRIE DOG. To right of body hold right hand near ground, showing height of animal; then make sign for HOLE; then push compressed right hand through closed left hand, until tips emerge; then with thumb and index snap them as in LITTLE TALK, representing their chattering noise.

PRAY. Make the signs for WORK (meaning: making), and MEDICINE. Some Southern Indians hold both flat hands, palms up, high above the sides of the head meaning: "God sees my hands; there is no blood on them, I am innocent."

PRESIDENT. Make the sign for WHITES, for CHIEF, and for BIG, and with left hand point afar as if towards Washington.

PRIEST (meaning: black robes). Make the sign for COAT, carrying hands well down, and for BLACK.

The earliest Missionaries among the Indians were The Catholic Priests, known as

"Black Robes," and Episcopalian ministers, known as "White Robes."

PRISONER (meaning: bound at wrists). Close the hands, cross the wrists in front of body, the right resting on left, palms down.

PRIVATE TALK.  Hold extended left hand, back up, in front of left breast; with right thumb and index make sign for LITTLE TALK under and close to left palm.

PROUD.  Used by Indians as meaning vain. Make sign for PAINT, for DRESS and for FOND-meaning, fond of GOOD DRESS.

PUEBLO--Indian.  Make sign for MEXICAN, for WORK, for BLANKET, and for STRIPED.

PUSH.  Place both fists near breasts holding arms rigid; then move them a few inches forward as with an effort.

Q  Click on picture to enlarge

QUARREL.  Bring index fingers, pointing up, several inches apart, opposite each other, in front of body, level with shoulders; now by wrist action move right tip toward left, then tip toward right, alternately, and repeat.   Make motions sharply.  Also means SCOLDING.

QUEEN. Make signs for FEMALE, CHIEF, and BIG.

QUENCH.  Make the sign for FIRE; then, with back up, hold extended right hand over place where sign for FIRE was made, and lower the hand; then make sign for WIPED OUT.

QUESTION.  Hold right 5 hand, palm outwards, at height of shoulders, fingers and thumb extended, separated and pointing upwards, turn the hand slightly by wrist action two or three times.  If the person is distant, hold the hand higher and move it considerably to right and left.  This particularly means WHAT-and partially means WHY, WHERE, WHEN; which see.

QUICK.  Make the sign for HURRY.

QUIET DOWN.  Hold flat hands: back up, out in front of body, as high as shoulders, fingers pointing to front; lower the hands slowly.