Friday, 3 August 2012

Native American Sign Language

There were many Native American Languages and the Indians spoke approximately 600 different dialects. The migration of the Europeans added to the number languages spoken in North America. It was imperative to try to communicate, even on basic level hence the need for Native American Sign Language

Reasons for Native American sign language

The coming of the European settlers to North America brought about many changes and conflicts. The Stone Age History of the Native Americans was far behind that of the Europeans. They had no knowledge of metal, their weapons were made of stone, they had no knowledge of the wheel and had never seen a horse. The Europeans were looking to settle in the New World but they were dependant on the Native Indians to help them to survive and find their way across the vast territory. They needed a form of communication that needed no words - the Native American sign language was born. The advent of the horse led many Native Indian tribes to migrate to regions such as the Great Plains where they could adopt the buffalo hunting lifestyle. The different tribes also had a need to communicate with each other. The Sign Language of the Great Plains Indians is one of the first known sign language systems of North America.

Migration through the Grate Plaines

The migration of many tribes to the Great Plains of the North in the 1700's led to the Indian Horse Culture. The Ute, Comanche, Kiowa, Apache, Pawnee, Cheyenne, Sioux. Crow, Shoshone, Mandan, Flathead, Nez Perce and Cree tribes had all acquired the horse and had become highly skilled horsemen and began to move or migrate onto the Great Plains, fully embracing the hunter-gatherer life style of the Great Plains region.


Sign language is considered to be one of the earliest and most comprehensive forms of communication in the world. Facial expressions, hand shapes, positions and movements of the hands, arms and body are used as a form of non-verbal communication to express words, feelings and ideas. This concept was used as a basis for the development of Native American Sign Language. In many instances the signs look like pictures drawn with the hands. When first using sign language it was only possible to communicate on a few subjects, and many of the gestures used a instinctive. But over time number of gestures increase and the general scope of expression becomes wider.  As tribes came into closer contact they started to use the Native American sign language more frequently and this led to a measure of uniformity of signs.

There were signs for the various Indian tribes that were communicated by sign language. The following signs used in Native American sign language reflected some striking characteristic of the tribe named.

Sign Language for Arapaho: The fingers of one hand touch the breast in different parts to indicate the tattooing of that part in points

Sign Language for Arikara: The Arikara were often referred to as “corn-eaters,” and are represented by imitating the shelling of corn, by holding the left hand still, the shelling being done with the right

Sign Language for Blackfeet: Move the flat hand over the outer edge of the right foot from the heel to beyond the toe, as if brushing off dust

Sign Language for Crow: Make the motion of flapping wings with the arms

Sign Language for Comanche and Shoshone (often called the 'snake people': Imitate with the hand or forefinger the crawling motion of the snake

Sign Language for Flathead (Salish tribe): The hand is raised and placed against the forehead

Basic symbols

It's fun and quite easy to learn some sign language, have a look at a few examples of common words and phrases. Some basic symbols used in Native American Sign Language are as follows:

YesNod the head
NoShake the Head
MePoint your right thumb at your chest
YouPoint your right index finger at the person
DrinkMove your cupped hand near the mouth
EatMove your partly closed hand downwards past the mouth and back again
SleepIncline your head to right, towards the palms of both hands
CountingNumbers are indicated by the fingers
ListenCup the right hand behind the right ear
MountainHold one fist held up out in front of chest
ComeBeckon with your finger
GoWave your hand outwards
HouseInterlace fingers near tips
Thank YouExtend both flat hands, backs up, in sweeping curve outward and downward, towards another person
CryTrace tracks of tears down the face
DeerMake a sign for deer horns by spreading fingers above the above sides of head
DownPoint downwards with right index finger.
UpPoint upwards with right index finger.
TradeHold up hands; then in semi-circle strike them past each other


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