GIFRE, Emma Martinell. La Comunicación entre españoles e indios: palabras y gestos. Madrid, Ed. Mapfre, 1992.




The Prairie Traveler by Randolph Barnes Marcy, Captain, U.S.A.



Guides and Hunters. -- Delawares and Shawnees. -- Khebirs. -- Black Beaver. -- Anecdotes. -- Domestic Troubles. -- Lodges. -- Similarity of Prairie Tribes to the Arabs. -- Method of making War. -- Tracking and pursuing Indians. -- Method of attacking them. -- Telegraphing by Smokes.



On approaching strangers these people put their horses at full speed, and persons not familiar with their peculiarities and habits might interpret this as an act of hostility; but it is their custom with friends as well as enemies, and should not occasion groundless alarm.

When a party is discovered approaching thus, and are near enough to distinguish signals, all that is necessary in order to ascertain their disposition is to raise the right hand with the palm in front, and gradually push it forward and back several times. They all understand this to be a command to halt, and if they are not hostile it will at once be obeyed.

After they have stopped the right hand is raised again as before, and slowly moved to the right and left, which signifies "I do not know you. Who are you?" As all the wild tribes have their peculiar pantomimic signals by which they are known, they will then answer the inquiry by giving their signal. If this should not be understood, they may be asked if they are friends by raising both hands grasped in the manner of shaking hands, or by locking the two fore-fingers firmly while the hands are held up. If friendly, they will respond with the same signal; but if enemies, they will probably disregard the command to halt, or give the signal of anger by closing the hand, placing it against the forehead, and turning it back and forth while in that position.

The pantomimic vocabulary is understood by all the Prairie Indians, and when oral communication is impracticable it constitutes the court or general council language of the Plains. The signs are exceedingly graceful and significant; and, what was a fact of much astonishment to me, I discovered they were very nearly the same as those practiced by the mutes in our deaf and dumb schools, and were comprehended by them with perfect facility.

The Comanche is represented by making with the hand a waving motion in imitation of the crawling of a snake.

The Cheyenne, or "Cut-arm," by drawing the hand across the arm, to imitate cutting it with a knife.

The Arapahos, or "Smellers," by seizing the nose with the thumb and fore-finger.

The Sioux, or "Cut-throats," by drawing the hand across the throat.

The Pawnees, or "Wolves," by placing a hand on each side of the forehead, with two fingers pointing to the front, to represent the narrow, sharp ears of the wolf.

The Crows, by imitating the flapping of the bird's wings with the palms of the hands.






COMMERCE OF THE PRAIRIES, by Josiah Gregg: Volume II




System of Chiefs — Mode of Warfare — War-Council — The Scalp-dance-—The Calumet or Pipe of Peace — Treaties — Public News-criers -- Arms of the Indians — Bow and Arrows, etc. -- Hunting -- Dancing -- Language of Signs — Telegraphs — Wigwams or Lodges — Pack-dogs — Costumes — Painting, Tattooing, etc — Indian Dandies — Manufactures, and Dressing the Buffalo Rug — Indian Diet, Fasting, etc. — Primitive Thomsonians—Their domestic Animals, the Dog and the Horse — Wampum — Their Chronology.


As so many tongues, entirely different, are spoken by the prairie Indians, a ‘language of signs’ has become the general medium of communication between the different nations. This system of signs has been brought to such perfection among them, that the most intricate correspondence seems to be intelligibly conducted by such as have acquired a proficiency in this ‘dumb language.’


The City of the Saints

and Across the Rocky Mountains to California

by Sir Richard F. Burton

Published in 1861 (London: Longman, Green, Longman, and Roberts) and in 1862 (New York: Harper & Bros.). Occasionally reprinted by small publishers as a tourist's travelogue or college textbook; generally ignored. The book is voluminous (xii + 574 pp.); only chapter II and the preface are reproduced here. The rest deals with Mormons, Salt Lake City and the topography of the American West. Burton had met with none other than Brigham Young himself.

Book extracts:

Chap. II -- "The Sioux or Dakotahs". In full text. A rather uncomplimentary view from a dispassionate observer.




A remarkable characteristic of the Prairie Indian is his habit of speaking, like the deaf and dumb, with his fingers. The pantomime is a system of signs, some conventional, others instinctive or imitative, which enables tribes who have no acquaintance with each other's customs and tongues to hold limited but sufficient communication. An interpreter who knows all the signs, which, however, are so numerous and complicated that to acquire them is the labor of years, is preferred by the whites even to a good speaker. Some writers, as Captain H. Stansbury, consider the system purely arbitrary; others, Captain Marcy, for instance, hold it to be a natural language similar to the gestures which surdmutes use spontaneously. Both views are true, but not wholly true; as the following pages will, I believe, prove, the pantomimic vocabulary is neither quite conventional nor the reverse.

The sign-system doubtless arose from the necessity of a communicating medium between races speaking many different dialects, and debarred by circumstances from social intercourse. Its area is extensive: it prevails among many of the Prairie tribes, as the Hapsaroke, or Crows, the Dakotah, the Cheyenne, and the Shoshonee; the Pawnees, Yutas, and Shoshoko, or Diggers, being vagrants and outcasts, have lost or never had the habit. Those natives who, like the Arapahoes, possess a very scanty vocabulary, pronounced in a quasi-unintelligible way, can hardly converse with one another in the dark: to make a stranger understand them they must always repair to the camp fire for "powwow." A story is told of a man who, being sent among the Cheyennes to qualify himself for interpreting, returned in a week, and proved his competence: all that he did, however, was to go through the usual pantomime with a running accompaniment of grunts. I have attempted to describe a few of the simpler signs: the reader, however, will readily perceive that without diagrams the explanation is very imperfect, and that in half an hour, with an Indian or an interpreter, he would learn more than by a hundred pages of print.

The first lesson is to distinguish the signs of the different tribes, and it will be observed that the French voyageurs and traders have often named the Indian nations from their totemic or masonic gestures.

The Pawnees (Les Loups) imitate a wolf's ears with the two forefingers - the right hand is always understood unless otherwise specified* - extended together, upright, on the left side of the head.

The Arapahoes, or Dirty Noses, rub the right side of that organ

* The left, as a rule, denotes inversion or contradiction.


with the forefinger: some call this bad tribe the Smellers, and make their sign to consist of seizing the nose with the thumb and forefinger.

The Comanches (Les Serpents) imitate, by the waving of the hand or forefinger, the forward crawling motion of a snake.

The Cheyennes, Paikanavos, or Cut-Wrists, draw the lower edge of the hand across the left arm as if gashing it with a knife.

The Sioux (Les Coupe-gorges), by drawing the lower edge of the hand across the throat: it is a gesture not unknown to us, but forms a truly ominous salutation considering those by whom it is practiced; hence the Sioux are called by the Yutas Pámpe Chyimina, or Hand-cutters.

The Hapsaroke (Les Corbeaux), by imitating the flapping of the birds' wings with the two hands-palms downward-brought close to the shoulders. The Kiowas, or Prairie-men, make the signs of the prairie and of drinking water. These will presently be described.

The Yutas, "they who live on mountains," have a complicated sign which denotes "living in mountains;" these will be explained under "sit" and "mountains."

The Blackfeet, called by the Yutas Paike or Goers, pass the right hand, bent spoon-fashion, from the heel to the little toe of the right foot. The following are a few preliminaries indispensable to the prairie traveler:

Halt! - Raise the hand, with the palm in front, and push it backward and forward several times - a gesture well known in the East.

I don't know you! - Move the raised hand, with the palm in front, slowly to the right and left.

I am angry! - Close the fist, place it against the forehead, and turn it to and fro in that position.

Are you friendly? - Raise both hands, grasped, as if in the act of shaking hands, or lock the two forefingers together while the hands are raised.

These signs will be found useful upon the prairie in case of meeting a suspected band. The Indians, like the Bedouin and N. African Moslem, do honor to strangers and guests by putting their horses to speed, couching their lances, and other peculiarities which would readily be dispensed with by gentlemen of peaceful pursuits and shaky nerves. If friendly, the band will halt when the hint is given and return the salute; if surly, they will disregard the command to stop, and probably will make the sign of anger. Then - ware scalp!

Come! - Beckon with the forefinger, as in Europe, not as is done in the East.

Come back! - Beckon in the European way, and draw the forefinger toward yourself.


Go! - Move both hands edgeways (the palms fronting the breast) toward the left with a rocking-horse motion.

Sit! - Make a motion toward the ground, as if to pound it with the ferient of the closed hand.

Lie down! - Point to the ground, and make a motion as if of lying down.

Sleep! - Ditto, closing the eyes.

Look! - Touch the right eye with the index and point it outward.

Hear! - Tap the right ear with the index tip.

Colors are expressed by a comparison with some object in sight. Many things, as the blowing of wind, the cries of beasts and birds, and the roaring of the sea, are imitated by sound.

See! - Strike out the two forefingers forward from the eyes.

Smell! - Touch the nose-tip. A bad smell is expressed by the same sign, ejaculating at the same time "Pooh!" and making the sign of bad.

Taste! - Touch the tongue-tip.

Eat! - Imitate the action of conveying food with the fingers to the mouth.

Drink! - Scoop up with the hand imaginary water into the mouth.

Smoke! - With the crooked index describe a pipe in the air, beginning at the lips; then wave the open hand from the mouth to imitate curls of smoke.

Speak! - Extend the open hand from the chin.

Fight! - Make a motion with both fists to and fro, like a pugilist of the eighteenth century who preferred a high guard.

Kill! - Smite the sinister palm earthward with the dexter fist sharply, in sign of "going down;" or strike out with the dexter fist toward the ground, meaning to "shut down;" or pass the dexter index under the left forefinger, meaning to "go under."

To show that fighting is actually taking place, make the gestures as above described; tap the lips with the palm like an Oriental woman when "keening," screaming the while O-a! O-a! to imitate the war-song.

Wash! - Rub the hand as with invisible soap in imperceptible water.

Think! - Pass the forefinger sharply across the breast from right to left.

Hide! - Place the hand inside the clothing of the left breast. This means also to put away or to keep secret. To express "I won't say," make the signs of "I" and "no" (which see), and hide the hand as above directed.

Love! - Fold the hands crosswise over the breast, as if embracing the object, assuming at the same time a look expressing the desire to carry out the operation. This gesture will be understood by the dullest squaw.

Tell truth! - Extend the forefinger from the mouth ("one word").

Tell lie! - Extend the two first fingers from the mouth ("double tongue," a significant gesture).


Steal! - Seize an imaginary object with the right hand from under the left fist. To express horse-stealing they saw with the right hand down upon the extended fingers of the left, thereby denoting rope-cutting.

Trade or exchange! - Cross the forefingers of both hands before the breast - "diamond cut diamond."

This sign also denotes the Americans, and, indeed, any white men, who are generically called by the Indians west of the Rocky Mountains "Shwop," from our swap or swop, an English Romany word for barter or exchange.

The pronouns are expressed by pointing to the person designated. For "I," touch the nose-tip, or otherwise indicate self with the index. The second and third persons are similarly made known.

Every animal has its precise sign, and the choice of gesture is sometimes very ingenious. If the symbol be not known, the form may be drawn on the ground, and the strong perceptive faculties of the savage enable him easily to recognize even rough draughts. A cow or a sheep denotes white men, as if they were their totems. The Indian's high development of locality also enables him to map the features of a country readily and correctly upon the sand. Moreover, almost every grand feature has a highly significant name, Flintwater, for instance, and nothing is easier than to combine the signs.

The bear is expressed by passing the hand before the face to mean ugliness, at the same time grinning and extending the fingers like claws.

The buffalo is known by raising the forefingers crooked inward, in the semblance of horns on both sides of the head.

The elk is signified by simultaneously raising both hands with the fingers extended on both sides of the head to imitate palmated horns.

For the deer, extend the thumbs and the two forefingers of each hand on each side of the head.

For the antelope, extend the thumbs and forefingers along the sides of the head, to simulate ears and horns.

Mountain sheep are denoted by placing the hands on a level with the ears, the palms facing backward and the fingers slightly reversed, to imitate the ammonite-shaped horns.

For the beaver, describe a parenthesis, e.g. ( ), with the thumb and index of both hands, and then with the dexter index imitate the wagging of the tail.

The dog is shown by drawing the two forefingers slightly opened horizontally across the breast from right to left. This is a highly appropriate and traditional gesture: before the introduction of horses, the dog was taught to carry the tent poles, and the motion expressed the lodge trail.

To denote the mule or ass, the long ears are imitated by the indices on both sides and above the head.


For the crow, and, indeed, any bird, the hands are flapped near the shoulders. If specification be required, the cry is imitated or some peculiarity is introduced. The following will show the ingenuity with which the Indian can convey his meaning under difficulties. A Yuta wishing to explain that the torpedo or gymnotus eel is found in Cotton-wood Kanyon Lake, took to it thus: he made the body by extending his sinister index to the fore, touched it with the dexter index at two points on both sides to show legs, and finally sharply withdrew his right forefinger to convey the idea of an electric shock.

Some of the symbols of relationship are highly appropriate, and not ungraceful or unpicturesque. Man is denoted by a sign which will not admit of description; woman, by passing the hand down both sides of the head as if smoothing or stroking the long hair. A son or daughter is expressed by making with the hand a movement denoting issue from the loins: if the child be small, a bit of the index held between the antagonized thumb and medius is shown. The same sign of issue expresses both parents, with additional explanations: To say, for instance, "my mother," you would first pantomime "I," or, which is the same thing, "my;" then "woman;" and, finally, the symbol of parentage. "My grandmother" would be conveyed in the same way, adding to the end clasped hands, closed eyes, and like an old woman's bent back. The sign for brother and sister is perhaps the prettiest: the two first fingertips are put into the mouth, denoting that they fed from the same breast. For the wife - squaw is now becoming a word of reproach among the Indians - the dexter forefinger is passed between the extended thumb and index of the left.

Of course there is a sign for every weapon. The knife - scalp or other - is shown by cutting the sinister palm with the dexter ferient downward and toward one's self: if the cuts be made upward with the palm downward, meat is understood. The tomahawk, hatchet, or axe is denoted by chopping the left hand with the right; the sword by the motion of drawing it; the bow by the movement of bending it; and a spear or lance by an imitation of darting it. For the gun, the dexter thumb and fingers are flashed or scattered, i.e., thrown outward or upward to denote fire. The same movement made lower down expresses a pistol. The arrow is expressed by nocking it upon an imaginary bow, and by "snapping" with the index and medius. The shield is shown by pointing with the index over the left shoulder, where it is slung ready to be brought over the breast when required.

The following are the most useful words:

Yes. - Wave the hands straight forward from the face.

No. - Wave the hand from right to left, as if motioning away. This sign also means "I'll have nothing to do with you." Done slowly and insinuatingly, it informs a woman that she is charmante - "not to be touched" being the idea.


Good. - Wave the hand from the mouth, extending the thumb from the index and closing the other three fingers. This sign means also "I know." "I don't know" is expressed by waving the right hand with the palm outward before the right breast, or by moving about the two forefingers before the breast, meaning "two hearts."

Bad. - Scatter the dexter fingers outward, as if spirting away water from them.

Now (at once). - Clap both palms together sharply and repeatedly, or make the sign of "to-day."

Day. - Make a circle with the thumb and forefinger of both, in sign of the sun. The hour is pointed out by showing the luminary's place in the heavens. The moon is expressed by a crescent with the thumb and forefinger: this also denotes a month. For a year give the sign of rain or snow.

Many Indians ignore the quadripartite division of the seasons, which seems to be an invention of European latitudes; the Persians, for instance, know it, but the Hindoos do not. They have, however, distinct terms for the month, all of which are pretty and descriptive, appropriate and poetical; e.g., the moon of light nights, the moon of leaves, the moon of strawberries, for April, May, and June. The Ojibwa have a queer quaternal division, called Of sap, Of abundance, Of fading, and Of freezing. The Dakotah reckon five moons to winter and five to summer, leaving one to spring and one to autumn; the year is lunar, and as the change of season is denoted by the appearance of sore eyes and of raccoons, any irregularity throws the people out.

Night. - Make a closing movement as if of the darkness by bringing together both hands with the dorsa upward and the fingers to the fore: the motion is from right to left, and at the end the two indices are alongside and close to each other. This movement must be accompanied by bending forward with bowed head, otherwise it may be misunderstood for the freezing over of a lake or river.

To-day. - Touch the nose with the index tip, and motion with the fist toward the ground.

Yesterday. - Make with the left hand the circle which the sun describes from sunrise to sunset, or invert the direction from sunset to sunrise with the right hand.

To-morrow. - Describe the motion of the sun from east to west. Any number of days may be counted upon the fingers. The latter, I need hardly say, are the only numerals in the pantomimic vocabulary.

Among the Dakotahs, when they have gone over the fingers and thumbs of both hands, one is temporarily turned down for one ten; at the end of another ten a second finger is turned down, and so on, as among children who are learning to count. "Opawinge," one hundred, is derived from "pawinga," to go round in circles, as the fingers have all been gone over again for their respective tens; "kektopawinge" is from "ake" and "opawinge" - "hundred again" - being about to recommence the circle of their


fingers already completed in hundreds. For numerals above a thousand there is no method of computing. There is a sign and word for one half of a thing, but none to denote any smaller aliquot part.

Peace. - Intertwine the fingers of both hands.

Friendship. - Clasp the left with the right hand.

Glad (pleased). - Wave the open hand outward from the breast, to express "good heart."

A Cup. - Imitate its form with both hands, and make the sign of drinking from it. In this way any utensil can be intelligibly described - of course, provided that the interlocutor has seen it.

Paint. - Daub both the cheeks downward with the index.

Looking-glass. - Place both palms before the face, and admire your countenance in them.

Bead. - Point to a bead, or make the sign of a necklace.

Wire. - Show it, or where it ought to be, in the ear-lobe.

Whisky. - Make the sign of "bad" and "drink" for "bad water."

Blanket or Clothes. - Put them on in pantomime.

A lodge. - Place the fingers of both hands ridge-fashion before the breast.

Fire. - Blow it, and warm the hands before it. To express the boiling of a kettle, the sign of fire is made low down, and an imaginary pot is eaten from.

It is cold. - Wrap up, shudder, and look disagreeable.

Rain. - Scatter the fingers downward. The same sign denotes snow.

Wind. - Stretch the fingers of both hands outward, puffing violently the while.

A Storm. - Make the rain sign; then, if thunder and lightning are to be expressed, move, as if in anger, the body to and fro, to show the wrath of the elements.

A Stone. - If light, act as if picking it up; if heavy, as if dropping it.

A Hill. - Close the finger-tips over the head: if a mountain is to be expressed, raise them high. To denote an ascent on rising ground, pass the right palm over the left hand, half doubling up the latter, so that it looks like a ridge.

A Plain. - Wave both the palms outward and low down.

A River. - Make the sign of drinking, and then wave both the palms outward. A rivulet, creek, or stream is shown by the drinking sign, and by holding the index tip between the thumb and medius; an arroyo (dry water-course), by covering up the tip with the thumb and middle finger.

A Lake. - Make the sign of drinking, and form a basin with both hands. If a large body of water is in question, wave both palms outward as in denoting a plain. The Prairie savages have never seen the sea, so it would be vain to attempt explanation.

A Book. - Place the right palm on the left palm, and then open both before the face.

A Letter. - Write with the thumb and dexter index on the sinister palm.

A Wagon. - Roll hand over hand, imitating a wheel.


A Wagon-road. - Make the wagon sign, and then wave the hand along the ground.

Grass. - Point to the ground with the index, and then turn the fingers upward to denote growth. If the grass be long, raise the hand high; and if yellow, point out that color.

The pantomime, as may be seen, is capable of expressing detailed narratives. For instance, supposing an Indian would tell the following tale - "Early this morning I mounted my horse, rode off at a gallop, traversed a kanyon or ravine, then over a mountain to a plain where there was no water, sighted bison, followed them, killed three of them, skinned them, packed the flesh upon my pony, remounted, and returned home" - he would symbolize it thus:

Touches nose - "I."

Opens out the palms of his hand - "this morning."

Points to east - "early."

Places two dexter forefingers astraddle over sinister index" – "mounted my horse."

Moves both hands upward and rocking-horse fashion toward the left - "galloped."

Passes the dexter hand right through thumb and forefinger of the sinister, which are widely extended - "traversed a kanyon."

Closes the finger-tips high over the head, and waves both palms outward - "over a mountain to a plain."

Scoops up with the hand imaginary water into the mouth, and then waves the hand from the face to denote "no" - "where there was no water."

Touches eye - "sighted."

Raises the forefingers crooked inward on both sides of the head "bison."

Smites the sinister palm downward with the dexter fist - "killed."

Shows three fingers - "three of them."

Scrapes the left palm with the edge of the right hand - "skinned them."

Places the dexter on the sinister palm, and then the dexter palm on the sinister dorsum - "packed the flesh upon my pony."

Straddles the two forefingers on the index of the left - "remounted;" and, finally,

Beckons toward self - "returned home."

To conclude, I can hardly flatter myself that these descriptions have been made quite intelligible to the reader. They may, however, serve to prepare his mind for a vivâ voce lesson upon the prairies, should fate have such thing in store for him.