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




RABBIT. Show the height of rabbit; then make the sign for JUMP.

RACE. State kind of race.  Then move index fingers forward as in EQUAL.

RAILWAY.  Make the sign for WAGON; then for FIRE with right hand held well up in front of head, then sign FAST.

RAIN (meaning: falling from clouds).  In front of head hold closed hands, near each other, backs up, in same relative positions; lower hands a trifle by wrist action, and while doing so open the hands.  Repeat motion twice, slowly.

RAINBOW. Make the sign for RAIN, and for FINISHED; then with extended right hand, back up, imitate circle of rainbow in sky.

RAPIDS.  Make the sign for RIVER and for ROCK; then hold right 5 hand near breast, pointing downwards; with tremulous motion move hand quickly to front and down.

RASH. Hold the left flat hand over the eyes, then thrust the right index outward from back of left hand.

RATTLE.  With closed right hand held in front and above right shoulder, shake the hand as if it was a rattle. (The rattle is an important musical instrument in Indian ceremonies.)

RATTLESNAKE.  Make the sign for SNAKE; then extend right index upwards in front of right shoulder and vibrate sharply.


READING.  Make signs for BOOK and LOOK.

RECEIVE. Make the sign for POSSESSION.

RECOVER. Place right 1 hand before right breast, back up, forearm horizontal; raise the hand until forearm straight up, turning hand until back is to front.  This means recovery from sickness or escape from danger.

RED (meaning: paint used on face).  With fingers pointing upward, rub right cheek with inside first joints of right hand, making circular motion.

REMAIN. Make the sign for SIT.

REMEMBER. Make the signs for HEART, and KNOW.

REPEAT. Make the sign for OFTEN.

RESTRAIN.  Make the sign for HOLD, and for KEEP QUIET.

RETREAT. Make the sign for CHARGE, to show the attack; then by wrist action turn the hands so that fingers point to rear.

RICH. Make the signs for POSSESS, MANY, PONIES (or HORSES).

RIDE. If animal is meant, make the sign for HORSE, and then move hands forward in small curves.  If riding a vehicle make the sign for same, and then make sign for SIT on left palm.

RING (finger).  Hold left 5 hand in front of breast, lying flat, back up; then touch back of finger on third joint with right index.

RISING MAN.  Make sign for person; then hold left hand at height of neck, palm outwards, index pointing upwards; bring extended index of right hand beside and lower than left; raise right slowly until well above other hand.

RIVER (meaning: water flowing).  Make the sign for water; then move right hand to left of face, height of neck, index extended pointing left, move hand to right until opposite right shoulder, with index horizontal.

ROAD.   With both open hand palms up, alternately push hands back and forth.  A modern sign gives TRAIL and WAGON.

ROCK.   Make the sign for HARD, and indicate shape.

ROPE.   Hold hands as in AFTER; then with tip of right index make a spiral curve by wrist action while drawing right hand to rear.

ROSE.   Hold slightly compressed left hand out in front; then with right compressed pluck at ends of fingers.

Click on picture to enlarge

RUN (to).   Make the sign for WALK and for FAST.

RUN AGAINST.  Hold flat left hand in front of breast, back out; hold right in same relative Position but nearer body; move right briskly so that back strikes inside of left hand.



SACRED.  Make the sign for MEDICINE.

SAD (meaning: heart laid on the ground). Make the sign for HEART; then swing hand out and downwards toward the ground, turning palm up.

SADDLE.  Place inside of both wrists together in front of breast; then holding this position, push both closed hands as far back as possible.

SALT.  Touch the tongue with tip of extended right index, other fingers and thumb closed; then make the sign for BAD.  Sometimes the sign for WHITE is made.

SAME.  Make the sign for EQUAL.

SAW.  Imitate using the tool.

SCHOOL HOUSE.  Make the sign for HOUSE, for WHITES, for LOOK (2 fingers pointing towards left palm), and for KNOW.

SCOLD.  Make the signs for TALK and BAD.

SCOUT.  Make the sign for WOLF.

SCOUT (to).  Make the sign for WOLF; then sign for LOOK.


SEASONS.  The usual names for the seasons are, WINTER, SPRING, SUMMER, FALL, and for explanation of same see pages 57, 49, 51, 23.

SEE.  Bring right 2 hand to opposite eyes, and the two fingers should point in the direction one is looking.

SEIZE.  Move open hands out in front of body; close them briskly and draw towards body, as though seizing something.


SEPARATE.  Hold the 1 hands close together in front, indexes pointing forward; by wrist action turn the hands so that right index points to right and front, left index to left and front; moving right hand to right and front, left to left and front.

SERGEANT.   Make the sign for WHITES, for SOLDIER, and with right index mark position, extent and number of stripes on the arms.

SEW.  Hold flat left hand, back to left, in front of body; use right index as an awl or needle, bringing it just over thumb, pointing to left, inner surface pressed against inner surface of index; move right hand slightly to left, and by wrist action turn back of index down as it passes.  Repeat motion two or three times.

SHAKE HANDS.  Clasp hands in front of body. In former times Indians only clasped hands in concluding a treaty or making peace.  They now, in dealing with whites, observe the custom.

SHARP.  Hold flat right hand, back down, in front of right breast; then lightly touch lower edge of right hand with ball of left thumb; then make sign for GOOD.

SHAWL.  Make sign for FEMALE; then sign for BLANKET.

SHE.  Make the sign for WOMAN.

SHEEP--Mountain (meaning; horns).  Compress and slightly curve the hands in front and above the head-have them curve in a way similar to that made by the big horns of the sheep.

SHEEP--Domestic.  Make sign for MOUNTAIN SHEEP, for WHITES, and for WITH.

SHOE.  Make the signs for MOCCASIN and WHITES.

SHOOT.  Hold nearly closed right hand, back up, in front of breast, tips of first three fingers pressed against ball of thumb; move hand out, down and to left, while snapping the fingers out from under the thumb.

SHORT.  Hold compressed right hand to right and front of body, fingers pointing upward and hand at height to be represented.

SHOSHONE-Indian (meaning: sheep eater).  Make the sign for INDIAN, for SHEEP, and for EAT.

Click on picture to enlarge

SICK.  Hold extended 5 hands in front of body; then wave them out and in, two or three times, to denote throbbing.

SIGN LANGUAGE.  Hold out flat left hand, back up, touch back of fingers with inside of fingers of right hand; then reverse this process; then make sign for TALK.

SILENT. Place tips of fingers of right hand over lips, and incline the head slightly to front.

SILVER.  Make the signs for MONEY and WHITE.


SING. Hold right 2 hand in front of mouth and make sign for ALL.

SIOUX--Indian (meaning: cutting off heads).   Draw right flat hand across, from left, in front of neck as though cutting off the head.   This is the sign of the Sioux or Dakota Nation.

SISTER.  Make the sign for FEMALE; then place the tips of extended index and second finger against lips, fingers horizontal, backs up, other fingers and thumb closed; move the hand horizontally several inches to the front.

SISTER-IN-LAW.   Make the sign for BROTHER, for HIS, and for WIFE.

SIT or REMAIN.  Hold closed right hand in front of and little below right shoulder; then move hand downward several inches.

SLED. Hold the 1 hands, backs down, in front of body, equally advanced, several inches apart, indexes curved, move hands forward simultaneously.

SLEEP.  Lower the extended flat hands with a sweep into following position: left hand in front of right breast pointing to right, right hand six inches to right of left, pointing to front and right; then incline head to right.

SLOW.  With both palms facing and three inches apart, move hands slowly forward by short stops.

SMALL.  If referring to an animal, indicate the height.   For small quantity of anything make the sign for FEW.

SMELL.  Bring right 2 hand, fingers separated, back up, in front of chin pointing to face; then by wrist action move the hand upwards, so that nose passes between tips of fingers.

SMOKE.  For distant or signal fire smoke, make sign for FIRE, and continue raising hand until higher than head.

SMOKE (meaning: to smoke a pipe).  Hold left fist in front of body; then with flat right hand held three inches above left strike down two or three times; then make sign for PIPE.

SMOOTH.  Make the sign for PRAIRIE, and add ROCK or BLUFF, and WIPED OUT.

SNAKE. Hold right 1 hand at right side, waist high, move hand one foot forward with a wavy motion.

SNOW.  Hold extended 5 hands in front of face, fingers pointing downward, lower in circular zigzags, to indicate whirling, sifting snow.

SNOW SHOE.  Indicate the shape and size with right index; then make signs for WALK, SNOW, and GOOD.

SOAP. With hands held in front of body, rub them together as though washing them.

SOFT.  Make the signs for HARD and NO.

SOLDIER.  Bring closed fists in front of breast, thumbs touching; then separate hands horizontally to right and left.

SON.  Make sign for man; then with right index pointing upwards, lower hand to indicate height of child.

SORREL.  Touch something yellow and make sign for LITTLE.

SOUR.  With tip of extended index of right hand touch the tongue; then make sign for BAD.


SPOON. Make the sign for BUFFALO, and leaving right hand in position touch it with left; then use right hand to dip into some vessel, and carry to mouth.

SPOTTED.  Hold out flat left hand and arm, pointing right and front; then hold right hand above left wrist, fingers slightly separated; then with right finger tips starting at left wrist, touch left forearm every two inches towards elbow, merely brushing with ends of fingers. Southern Indians lay back of hands on each other, fingers over fingers, then rub them back and forth several times, to represent spotted, mottled, brindle, roan, or any off color.

SPRING (meaning: grass coming out of ground). Make the signs for GRASS and LITTLE.

SPRING (meaning: a spring of water).  Make the sign for WATER; then with thumbs and index fingers form a circle in front of body; then, still holding left in position, bring compressed right under the circle, fingers held under the thumb; then release them with a snap to indicate bubbling spring. Repeat last movement.

SPY. Make the sign for WOLF.

Click on picture to enlarge

STAND.  To indicate anything standing upright, bring right 1 hand to right and front and higher than right shoulder, index pointing upwards.

STANDING ROCK (meaning: an agency on the MISSOURI RIVER). Make the signs for STAND and ROCK.

STAR.  Make the sign for NIGHT; then form a small incomplete circle with right thumb and index, and raise hand toward sky.  For brilliant star, snap index against Thumb to denote twinkling.

START. Make the sign for GO.

STAY.  Make the sign for SIT.

STEAL.  Hold extended left hand in front of left breast, back up, pass right 1 hand under and close to left hand, until right wrist is close to left palm, right index extended; then draw back the right hand, at same time crooking index.

STEAMBOAT (meaning: fire-boat). Make the sign for BOAT; then sign for FIRE, holding hand a little higher than the head.

STINGY.  Make the signs for HEART and FEW.

STONE. Make the sign for HARD, and indicate shape as of a boulder.


STORE.  Make signs for HOUSE and TRADE.


STRIKE.  Hold left flat hand out in front of left breast, back down; use right hand like a hatchet and strike palm of left.  Generally used to represent a blow given with a weapon.

STRIPED. Hold left arm as in SPOTTED; then draw palm of extended right hand from left to right across left forearm in various places.

STRONG. The sign for BRAVE was formerly used by many.   The later preference is to hold right fist above left fist and strike over and downwards with twisting motion, as though breaking a small stick.

SUGAR.  Touch the tongue with tip of right index; then make the sign for GOOD.

SUMMER. Make the sign for GRASS, holding hands very high. Some Indians also denote SUN passing overhead, and HOT.

SUN. Form, with index and thumb of right hand, an incomplete circle, space of one inch between tips; hold hand towards the east; then move it in a curve across the heavens towards the west.  Also used to denote the time of day.   (Right hand held towards left indicates eastward).

SUNDAY.  Make signs for DAY and MEDICINE.  Have seen Indians describe other days of the week by indicating so many days before or after Medicine Day.

SUNRISE. With right index and thumb make an incomplete circle, other fingers closed.  Hold arm horizontal pointing to left; then raise hand about a foot.

SUNSET--Opposite to SUNRISE.  With thumb and index of right hand forming an incomplete circle, extend right hand to right, about 1 foot above horizontal; then lower same 12 inches.

SUPERIOR.  In comparing two persons or things, place the two extended indexes side by side, pointing up, one held higher than the other, the highest representing the superior.  When one is superior to several, place index of right hand above extended thumb and four fingers of left.


SURPRISE. Make the sign for ASTONISH.

SURROUND.  Hold thumbs and indexes in semi-circle several inches apart and opposite each other; then bring them together to form a flat circle.


SWIM.  Make the sign for WATER; then strike the arms out well in front as though swimming.