[From Colonel Garrick Mallery's “Sign Language of the Indians of the Upper Missouri in 1832.” in American Antiquarian, ii (Chicago, 1879-80), pp. 218-228. ]


Although nearly every book of travels among the Indians found between the Alleghenies and the western slope of the Rocky Mountains, refers to their frequent and convenient use of sign language, there are only three useful collections of described signs of any early date, either printed, or, so far as ascertained, in manuscript. These are as follows:

The one collected by Prince Maximilian von Wied-Neu-Wied, in 1832--34, from the Cheyenne, Shoshoni, Arikara, Satsika, and the Absaroki, the Mandans, Hidatsa, and other Northern Dakotas. This list is not published in the English edition, but appears in the German, Coblenz, 1839, and in the French, Paris, 1840. Bibliographic reference is often made to this distinguished explorer as “Prince Maximilian,” as if there were but one possessor of that christian name among princely families. No translation of this list into English appears to have been printed in any shape, while the German and French editions are costly and difficult of access, so the collection cannot readily be compared by observers with the signs now made by the same tribes. The translation now presented is intended to facilitate such comparison. It is based upon the German original, but in a few cases where the language was so curt as not to give a clear idea, was collated with the French edition of the succeeding year, which, from some internal evidence, appears to have been published with the assistance or supervision of the author. Many of the descriptions are, however, so brief and indefinite in both their German and French forms, that they necessarily remain so in the present translation. The princely explorer, with the keen discrimination shown in all his work, doubtless observed what has escaped many recent reporters of aboriginal signs, that the latter depend much more upon motion than mere position --- and are generally large and free --- seldom minute. His object was to express the general effect of the motion, rather than to describe it so as to allow of its accurate reproduction by a reader who had never seen it. For the latter purpose, now very desirable, a more elaborate description would have been necessary, and even that would not in all cases have been sufficient without pictorial illustration. In a few instances the present writer has added explanations preceded by a dash ---. Remarks on the signs might be indefinitely extended, but the present object is to assist present observers in making their own comparisons and suggestions, which, it is hoped, they will contribute to the final work on Sign Language, now in preparation by the Bureau of Ethnology of the Smithsonian Institution, of which notice has been given in a preliminary pamphlet lately issued.

It is worthy of note that the distinguished explorer, who was the earliest to publish a comprehensive and scientific account of the tribes of the upper Missouri, is the only printed authority agreeing with the present writer in denying the existence of a universal sign language among the several tribes, in the sense of a common code, the report of which has generally been accepted without question. He states that the signs described, gathered by him from the tribes above mentioned, are unintelligible to the Dakotas (probably Sioux), Assiniboins, Ojibwas, Krees, and other nations. He undoubtedly means, however, that different signs prevailed among the two bodies of Indians, so divided by himself, and that the individuals who had only learned by rote one set of those signs, would not understand the other set which they had never seen, unless they were accomplished in the gesture speech as an art, and not as a mere memorized list of arbitrary motions. It has been clearly ascertained that two Indians of different tribes who have neither oral language nor previously adopted signs in common, can, after a short trial, communicate through familiarity with the principles of gesture speech, signs being mutually invented and accepted.

The philosophic prince also was one of the first to correct another common error, in attributing the use of signs to the poverty of the aboriginal tongues.

List of the Prince of Wied-Neu-Wied

1. Good:
Place the right hand horizontally in front of the breast, and move it forward.--- This gesture is more fully described by a recent observer, as follows: “Place the right hand horizontally in front of the breast, and touching it, fingers and thumbs closed and extended, back of hand up, move rather sharply to the front until the forearm is nearly extended.” It may convey the suggestion of “level,” “no difficulty,” and resembles some signs for “content.” Many Indians and deaf mutes use gestures to express a pleasant taste in the mouth, for “good” even in a moral sense. (G. S. 124; S. L. 25.)
2. Bad:
Close the hand and open it whilst passing it downwards.--- This sign is still frequent, the idea of dropping out the supposed contents of the hand as not worth keeping, being obvious. (G. S. 27; S. L. 26.)
3. See:
Pass the extended index-finger forward from the eye. (G. S. 229.)
4. Come:
Elevate the index-finger near the face, extend the hand and return it with a number of gentle jerks.--- In the prevalent sign noticed now for “come,” in the sense of “come here,” the index, after the forearm (not hand alone) is extended, is crooked slightly as if hooking on to an object, and drawn sharply toward the person. The degree of motion is, however, proportioned to the occasion, and the successive “gentle jerks” of the author indicate less urgency than one sharp redrawal. (G. S. 68.)
5. Arrive:
Clap the hands,elevating the index-finger of the right hand.--- To express arrival at a place indicated by previous gestures, some of the upper Missouri tribes now hold the left hand fingers extended and closed, well out in front of the body, palm toward it, forearm horizontal, right hand between left and body, index extended vertically, other fingers and thumb closed, nails outward, then the right hand is carried sharply out until it strikes the left. The same sign is used in a direction to go to a place indicated, and that for returning from a place is the same with reversed position of hands. It is conjectured that the clapping of the hands mentioned by the author as commencing the sign refers to the accomplishment of the motion, as southern negroes say “done come.” (G. S. 70.)
6. Go, depart:
Like come ; but begin near the face and extend the hand with a number of gentle jerks. (G. S. 120.)
7. Speak:
Place the flat hand back downward before the mouth and move it forward two or three times. (G. S. 245.)
8. Another speaks:
Place the hand in the same position, beginning farther from the mouth, drawing it nearer and nearer. (G. S. 246.)
9. Man:
Elevate the index-finger and turn the hand hither and thither. --- The “turning of the hand hither and thither” probably signifies more than the simple idea of man, and is used for “only one man” or “a man who is alone.” The finger represents the male organ of generation, and among some tribes the finger is held erect or crooked downward, to indicate mature or declining age. (G. S. 176.)
10. Woman:
Pass the palm of the extended hand downward over the hair on the side of the head, or downward over the cheeks. (G. S. 287.)
11. Child:
Push the index-finger rapidly into the air then draw the hand back downward.--- The distance of the hand from the ground when the motion ceases, indicates the height of the child referred to. Indians often indicate the height of human beings by the hand placed at the proper elevation, back downward, and that of inanimate objects or animals not human by the hand held back upward. (G. S. 54.)
12. Kill:
Clinch the hand and strike from above downward.--- This motion, which may be more clearly expressed as the downward thrust of a knife held in the clinched hand, is still used by many tribes for the general idea of “kill,” and illustrates the antiquity of the knife as a weapon. The actual employment of arrow, gun, or club in taking life, is, however, often specified by appropriate gesture. (G. S. 158.)
13. Arrow, To shoot an:
Place the tips of the fingers downward upon the thumb, then snap them forward. (G. S. 25.)
14. Gun, Discharge of a:
Place both hands as in No. 13, extend the left arm, contract the right before the face, then snap the ends of the fingers forward. (G. S. 130.)
15. Arrow, To hit with an:
After the fingers have been snapped, strike the hands together and elevate the index-finger of the right hand. (G. S. 24.)
16. Gunshot, To hit with a:
After the fingers have been snapped, strike the hands together as in No. 15. (G. S. 31.)
17. God, great spirit:
Blow upon the open hand, point upward with the extended index-finger whilst turning the closed hand hither and thither, then sweep it above the earth and allow it to drop. (G. S. 89.)
18. Medicine:
Stir with the right hand into the left, and afterwards blow into the latter.--- All persons familiar with Indians will understand that the term “medicine” foolishly enough adopted by both the French and English to express the aboriginal magic arts, has no therapeutic significance. Very few even pretended remedies were administered to the natives, and probably never by the professional shaman, who worked by incantation, often pulverizing and mixing the substances mystically used, to prevent their detection. The same mixtures were employed in divination. The author particularly mentions Mandan ceremonies, in which a white “medicine” stone, as hard as pyrites, was produced by rubbing in the hand snow, or the white feathers of a bird. The blowing away of the disease, considered to be a malign power foreign to the body, was a common part of the juggling performance. (G. S. 179.)
19. Gun:
Close the fingers against the thumb, elevate the hand and open the fingers with a quick snap. (G. S. 129.)
20. Bow:
Draw the right arm back completely, as if drawing the bow-string, whilst the left arm is extended with clinched hand. (G. S. 43.)
21. Arrow:
Pass the index-finger of the right hand several times across the left arm. (G. S. 23.)
22. Arrowhead, Iron:
With the index-finger of the right hand, touch the tip of the extended forefinger of the left hand several times. (G. S. 25.)
23. Gunflint:
With the index-finger of the right hand cut off a piece of the extended thumb, so that the finger is laid across the thumbnail. (G. S. 131.)
24. Gun-screw:
Elevate the hand to indicate a gun, and twist the fingers spirally around the thumb. (G. S. 131.)
25. Question:
Extend the open hand perpendicularly with the palm outward, and move it from side to side several times. (G. S. 210.)
26. Gunpowder:
Rub the thumb and index-finger together repeatedly. (G. S. 131.)
27. Coat:
Separate the thumb and index-finger of each hand and pass them downward over the sides of the body. (G. S. 61.)
28. Leggings:
Open the fingers as before and draw them upward along both legs. (G. S. 166.)
29. Moccasins, shoes:
Raise the foot and stroke it from front to back with the index-finger of the hand on the same side. (G. S. 232.)
30. Breechcloth:
Pass the flat hand from between the legs upward toward the belly. (G. S. 48.)
31. Hat:
Pass the parted thumb and index-finger about both sides of the head where the hat rests upon it. (G. S. 135.)
32. True, It is:
Lower the hand in front of the breast, then extend the index-finger, raise and move it straight forward before the person. (G. S. 273.)
33. Lie:
Pass the second and third finger of the right hand toward the left side in front of the mouth.--- By the expression “second and third” finger the author means, as appears in other connections, the index and middle finger. The idea of double tongued, two kinds of talk, prevails now among all Indian tribes, though it is sometimes made by one finger, the index, moved successively from the mouth in two different directions. (G. S. 166.)
34. Know:
Spread the thumb and index-finger of the right hand, sweep toward the breast, moving them forward and outward so that the palm turns up. (G. S. 161.)
35. Do not know:
First place the fingers in the preceding position, then turn the right hand upward with spread fingers so that they point outward toward the right side. (G. S. 162.)
36. Much:
Move both hands toward one another and slightly upward. --- This is the formation of a “heap.” (G. S. 208; S. L. 24.)
37. Little:
Pass the nearly closed hands several times by jerks over one another, the right hand above. (G. S. 238.)
38. Trade:
Strike the extended index-finger of the right hand several times upon that of the left. (G. S. 268.)
39. Exchange:
Pass both hands with extended forefingers across each other before the breast.--- In the author's mind “exchange” was probably intended for one transaction, in which each of two articles took the place before occupied by the other, and “trade” was intended for a more general and systematic barter, indicated by the repetition of strokes, in which the index-fingers mutually changed positions. (G. S. 105.)
40. Horse:
Place the index and third fingers of the right hand astraddle the index-finger of the left.--- By the “third” the author means the middle finger. He counts the thumb as the first. (G. S. 144.)
41. Horse, To ride a:
As before stated, but with this difference, that the right hand extends farther and the gesture is made quickly. (G. S. 147.)
42. Dog:
Pass the flat hand from above downward, stopping at the height of a dog's back. (G. S. 96; S. L. 28.)
43. Beaver:
With the back of the open right hand, strike the palm of the left several times. (G. S. 32.)
44. Otter:
Draw the nose slightly upward with the first two fingers of the right hand. (G. S. 194.)
45. Bison, female:
Curve the two fore-fingers, place them on the sides of the head, and move them several times. (G. S. 40.)
46. Bison, male:
Place the tightly closed hands on both sides of the head with the fingers forward. (G. S. 40.)
47. Antelope:
Pass the open right hand outward from the small of the back.--- This, as explained by Indians examined by the present writer, indicates the lighter coloration upon the animal's flanks. A Ute who could speak Spanish accompanied it with the word blanco, as if recognizing that it required explanation. (G. S. 22.)
48. Sheep, bighorn (Ovis montana):
Move the hands in the direction of the horns on the side of the head by passing them backward and forward in the form of a half-circle. (G. S. 231.)
49. Mule:
Hold the open hands high beside the head, and move them from back to front several times like wings. (G. S. 186.)
50. Elk (Cervus can.):
Stretch the arms above and along side of the head. (G. S. 103.)
51. Deer:
Pass the uplifted hand to and fro several times in front of the face. (G. S. 86; S. L. 27.)
52. Deer, black tail:
First make the preceding gesture, then indicate a tail. (G. S. 88; S. L. 27.)
53. Buffalo-robe:
Pass both fists crossing in front of the breast, as if wrapping one's self up. (G. S. 59.)
54. Day:
Place both hands at some distance in front of the breast, apart and back downward, elevate the index-finger and move it forward to indicate one, twice for two days, etc. When counting on the fingers begin at the left hand. (G. S. 77; S. L. 20.)
55. Night:
Move both hands open and flat, that is horizontal, the covering , and consequently obscurity. In the foregoing sign for day the author probably meant that the hands, palms up, were moved apart, to denote openness. (G. S. 187.)
56. Sun:
Form a small circle with the forefingers and hold them toward heaven. (G. S. 256.)
57. Moon:
Make the same sign, after having made that for night. (G. S. 183.)
58. River:
Open the right hand and pass it before the mouth from above downward. (G. S. 222.)
59. Forest:
Slightly spread and raise the ten fingers bringing the hands together in front of the face, then separate them.--- The numerous trees and their branches are indicated. (G. S. 112.)
60. Mountain:
Raise the arm from the elbow without moving the latter, the back of the clinched hand directed toward the front. (G. S. 141.)
61. Prairie, plain:
Lay the hands flat upon their backs and move them straight from one another in a horizontal line. (G. S. 198.)
62. Village:
Place the opened thumb and forefinger of each hand opposite to each other, as if to make a circle, but leaving between them a small interval, afterward move them from above downward simultaneously.--- The villages of the tribes with which the author was longest resident, particularly the Mandans and Arikaras, were surrounded by a strong, circular stockade, spaces or breaks in the circle being left for entrance and exit. (G. S. 277.)
63. Kettle:
Same sign as for village, but is made closer to the earth. --- Singularly enough, the configuration of a common kettle (the utensil obtained from the whites in trade being, of course, the one referred to) is the same as that of the stockaded villages, the intervals left between the hands representing in this case the interruption in the circle made by the handles. The differentiation is effected by the position closer to the earth. (G. S. 157.)
64. Lodge:
The same, with the addition that the finger is elevated to indicate the number, one. (G. S. 170.)
65. Lodge, Entering a:
Pass the right hand in short curves under the left, which is held a short distance forward.--- The conception is of the stooping to pass through the low entrance, which is often covered by a common flap, and the subsequent rising when the entrance has been accomplished. In the same tribes now, if the intention is to speak of a person entering the gesturer's own lodge, the right hand is passed under the left and toward the body, near which the left hand is held; if of a person entering the lodge of another, the left hand is held further from the body and the right is passed under it and outward. In both cases both hands are slightly curved and compressed. (G. S. 172.)
66. Robe, Red:
First indicate the wrapping about the shoulders, then rub the right cheek to indicate the red color.--- The red refers to the paint habitually used on the cheeks, not to the natural skin. The Indians know better than to designate between each other their natural color as red, and have been known to give the designation red man to the visiting Caucasian, whose blistered skin often better deserves the epithet, which they only apply to themselves in converse with the conquering race that insisted upon it. (G. S. 59, 66.)
67. Robe, Green:
Indicate the wrapping about the shoulders, and with the back of the left hand make the gesture of stroking grass upon the earth. (G. S. 59, 66.)
68. Robe, Blue:
Indicate the wrapping, then with two fingers of the right hand rub the back of the left.--- It is conjectured that the veins on the back of the hand are indicated. (G. S. 59, 66.)
69. Ax:
Cross the arms and slide the edge of the right hand held vertically, down over the left arm. (G. S. 267.)
70. Beads, Glass:
Stroke the fingers of the right hand over the upper arm of the left. (G. S. 31.)
71. Vermillion, cinnabar:
Rub the right cheek with the fingers of the right hand.--- The chief use of this pigment was to paint the cheeks. (G. S. 67.)
72. Knife:
Cut past the mouth with the raised right hand.--- This clearly refers to the general practice of cutting off food, as much being crammed into the mouth as can be managed and then separated by a stroke of a knife from the remaining mass. This is specially the case with fat entrails, the aboriginal delicacies. (G. S. 160.)
73. Fire:
Hold the fingers of the right hand slightly opened and upward, and elevate the hand several times.--- This portrays the forked tongues of the flames rising. (G. S. 109.)
74. Water:
Same as “river.”
75. Smoke:
Snuffle the nose and raise the fingers of both hands several times, rubbing the fingers against each other.--- The rubbing may indicate the former mode of obtaining fire by friction, accompanied with smoke, which is further indicated by the wrinkled nose. (G. S. 240.)
76. Partisan:
First make the sign of the pipe, then open the thumb and index-finger of the right hand, back of the hand outward, move it forward and upward in a curve.--- By the title of “partisan” the author meant, as indeed was the common expression of the Canadian voyageurs, a leader of an occasional or volunteer war party. The sign is explained by his account in a different connection, that to become recognized as a leader of such a war party, the first act among the tribes using the sign was the consecration, by fasting succeeded by feasting, of a medicine pipe without ornament, which the leader of the expedition afterward bore with him as his badge of authority, and it therefore naturally became an emblematic sign. There may be interest in noting that the “Calendar of the Dakota Nation” (Bulletin U. S. G. and G. Survey, vol. iii, No. 1) gives a figure (No. 43, A. D. 1842) showing “One Feather,” a Sioux chief, who raised in that year a large war party against the Crows, which fact is simply denoted by his holding out, demonstratively, an unornamented pipe. (G. S. 53.)
77. Chief:
Raise the index-finger of the right hand, holding it straight upward, then turn it in a circle, and bring it straight down a little toward the earth.--- If this gesture is accurately described by the author, its conception may be “elevated in the midst of surrounding inferiors.” In view, however, of the fact that Indians now make a forward curve instead of a horizontal circle, the former instead of the latter may have been intended in the curt expression. The prevailing delineation of the superior authority of the chiefs is by superior height, one form of which is reported as follows: Right forearm nearly vertical, index extended, thumb and other fingers closed, nails toward cheek and about eight inches from it. Extend right arm vertically about eight inches; turn index as an arrow turns in the air and bring down in front of face between the eyes until about opposite the chin. (G. S. 51; S. L. 19.)
78. White man, American:
Place the open index-finger and thumb of the right hand toward the face, then pass it to the right in front of the forehead to indicate the hat. The fist can also be used in same way. (G. S. 283.)
79. Negro:
First make the sign for white man, then rub the hair on the right side of the head with a flat hand. --- The present common sign for "black" is to rub or touch the hair, which, among Indians, is almost universally of that color. (G. S. 186.)
80. Fool:
Place the hand in front of the head, back outward, then turn it round in a circle several times. (G. S. 112.)
81. Scalp:
Grasp the hair with the left hand, and with the right one flattened cut away over the left. (G. S. 228.)
82. Content, satisfied:
With the raised right hand, pass with a serpentine movement upward from the breast and face above the head. (G. S. 119; S. L. 35.)
83. Mine, this belongs to me:
With the fist, pass upward in front of the breast, then push it forward with a slight jerk. (G. S. 200.)
84. Belongs to another:
Pass the hand quickly before the face as if to say, “go away,” then make gesture No. 83. (G. S. 202.)
85. This does not belong to me:
First make gesture No. 83, then wave the right hand quickly by and in front of the face toward the right. (G. S. 203.)
86. Perhaps I will get it:
First, No. 83, then move the right hand right and left before the face, the thumb turned toward the face.
87. Brave:
Close the fists, place the left near the breast, and move the right over the left toward the left side. (G. S. 45.)
88. Coward:
Point forward with the index followed by the remaining fingers, each time that is done draw back the index.--- Impossible to keep the coward to the front. (G. S. 106; S. L. 23.)
89. Hard:
Open the hand, and strike against it several times with the right (with the backs of the fingers). (G. S. 134.)
90. Soft:
Make gesture No. 89, then strike on the opposite side so as to indicate the reunion. (G. S. 242.)
91. Hard, Excessively:
Sign No. 89, then place the left index-finger upon the right shoulder, at the same time extend and raise the right arm high, extending the index-finger upwards, perpendicularly. (G. S. 135.)
92. Repeat, (a thing) often:
Extend the left arm, also the index-finger, and with the latter strike the arm at regular intervals from front backward several times. (G. S. 221.)
93. Heard, I have:
Open wide the thumb and index-finger of the right hand, place them over the ear, and in this position move them quickly past the chin and nose. (G. S. 139.)
94. Listen:
Place the open thumb and index-finger over the right ear and move them hither and thither. (G. S. 137.)
95. Run:
Lay both hands flat, palm downward, and pass the right rapidly high and far over the left, so that the body is somewhat raised. (G. S. 225.)
96. Slow:
Extend the left arm, curving the forefinger and holding it still. The right arm does the same but is drawn back with-several short and circular movements. (G. S. 237.)
97. Fat:
Raise the left arm with fist closed back outward, grasp the arm with the right hand, and rub downward thereon. (G. S. 106.)
98. Lean:
Hold the flattened hands toward one another before the breast, separate them, moving all the fingers several times inward and outward toward and from the breast. (G. S. 199.)
99. Sick:
Hold the hands as just stated, toward one another, bring them, held stiff, in front of the breast, and move them forward and backward from and to the same. (G. S. 233.)
100. Dead:
Hold the left hand flat over the face, back outward, and pass with the similarly held right hand below the former, gently striking or touching it. (G. S. 83.)