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Indian Sign Language

Indian Sign Language

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by William Tomkins

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Plains Indians from different tribes speaking different languages were nevertheless able to communicate facts and feelings of considerable complexity when they met. They used a language composed of gestures made almost entirely with the hands and fingers, probably the most highly developed gesture language to be found in any part of the world.
With this book,


Plains Indians from different tribes speaking different languages were nevertheless able to communicate facts and feelings of considerable complexity when they met. They used a language composed of gestures made almost entirely with the hands and fingers, probably the most highly developed gesture language to be found in any part of the world.
With this book, you will find it simple to use this language, which the author learned in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, principally from Sioux Indians in Wyoming. Drawings and short descriptions make clear the proper positions and motions of the hands to convey the meaning of over 870 alphabetically arranged common words — hungry, camp, evening, angry, fire, laugh, owl, cat, many times, brave, cold, heart, rain, spotted, together, river, etc. The words are then used in sample sentences. There are also brief sections on the pictography and ideography of the Sioux and Ojibway tribes, and on smoke signals.
This is a book for anyone who wants to learn or teach Indian sign language — scouts, school teachers, camp counselors, scout leaders, parents, linguists, and students of Indian culture. To help counselors and teachers, the last chapters give instructions on how to conduct the Indian ceremony for opening a council fire, an Indian initiation ceremony, and suggestions for sign language tests and exercises.

Product Details

Dover Publications
Publication date:
Native American Series
Sales rank:
Product dimensions:
6.12(w) x 9.24(h) x 0.28(d)
Age Range:
9 - 12 Years

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Read an Excerpt

Indian Sign Language

By William Tomkins

Dover Publications, Inc.

Copyright © 1969 Dover Publications, Inc.
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-486-13094-1



ABANDON (meaning: throw away). With both closed hands held at left side near breast, drop them downwards and to rear, at same time opening them as though expelling some article.

ABOARD (meaning: sitting down on). Hold left hand flat, ten inches from body, palm up. Place right fist on left palm, with little finger down.

ABOVE (meaning one thing above another). Both hands backs up in front of body, the right resting on the left. Then raise the right more or less above the left. ABSENT. Make signs for SIT and NO.

ABUSE (meaning: throwing lies against one). Bring right 2 hand in front of mouth; move the hand sharply outwards or towards person indicated; repeat.


ACCOST. Make the sign for QUESTION.

ACCOST (meaning: to question). When party is at some distance hold right hand well up and wave to right and left two or three times.

ACHE (meaning: the darting sensations of pain). Push the right index finger over and parallel to the part afflicted; then make the sign for SICK.

ACROSS. The flat left hand, with back up, is held about twelve inches out from body. Then pass the partially compressed right hand over left on a curve.

ADD. Place right flat hand on palm of left in front of body, and lift them upwards several times in moves of about 3 inches, to indicate piling up.

ADVANCE. Point right flat hand forward, palm down, ten inches from body. Bring left hand in same position but between right hand and body. Then move both hands forward in slight jerks.

ADVANCE GUARD (The person in front). Left flat hand ten inches from center of body. Right 1 hand in front of left pointing upwards, then change to 2 hand, and move around to indicate LOOKING.

AFRAID (meaning: shrinks back from). Bring both 1 hands well out in front of breast; bring hands back a few inches and slightly downwards, while curving index fingers. Usually only right hand is used in making this sign.

AFRAID OF NO ONE. Point right index in several directions; then make signs for AFRAID and NO.

AFTER, (or FUTURE TIME.) Make sign for TIME, then advance the right 1 hand past and beyond the left hand.

AFTERNOON. Form an incomplete circle with thumb and index of right hand. Then raise toward a point directly overhead, and sweep down towards the horizon.

AGE. Indicate by showing number of winters. (See WINTER.)

AGENT (meaning: Indian Agent). Make signs for WHITE MAN, CHIEF, GIVE, and FOOD.


AHEAD. Make the sign for BEFORE.

AID. Make signs for WORK and WITH.

AIM (meaning: "From the manner of using weapon"). If with rifle—aim accordingly; if with bow and arrow—bring hands up before breast with motion of drawing bow string.

AIRPLANE. Extend both arms straight out to each side, sway body imitating motion of plane; then swing hand in a curve from waist towards the sky. Then sign BIRD and EQUAL (a flexible modern sign, understood by Indians).

ALIGHT (to). Indicate whether from horse, wagon, etc. Then sweep 2 hand towards the ground.

ALIKE (meaning: that 2 people look alike). Make the signs for FACE and SAME.

ALIVE (meaning: walking about). Bring right 1 hand 10 inches from breast, then by wrist action make 3 zigzags.

ALL. Move right flat hand in horizontal circle from right to left, breast high.

ALL GONE. Point both extended hands at each other in front of breast. Then loosely wipe ends of fingers of right hand across palm and fingers of left, and vice versa.

ALLIANCE. Make sign for PEACE, and if for war purposes add signs GOING, WAR, WITH.

ALL RIGHT. Make sign for ALL and sign for GOOD.

ALONE. Hold right 1 hand upwards in front of neck. Then move outwards in sinuous motion.

ALWAYS. Make the sign for FOREVER.

AMBITIOUS. Make sign for the person and sign for PUSH.

AMONG. Bring extended left 5 hand ten inches from breast, then weave right index through fingers of left.

ANCESTORS. Most Indians usually make sign for OLD PEOPLE. Some add LONG TIME.

AND. Make the sign for WITH.

ANGRY (meaning: mind twisted). Place closed right hand close to forehead, with back of thumb touching same; move hand slightly outwards and by wrist action give small twisting motion.


ANNOY (meaning: fluttering heart). Make the sign for HEART. Then flutter the 5 hand over the heart.

ANNUITIES. Make the sign for BLANKET, for FOOD and for DISTRIBUTE.

ANOTHER. Place compressed right hand over left breast, sweep hand upwards, outwards to right and downwards ending with back down.

ANTELOPE (meaning: pronged horns of animals). Hold both 4 hands beside head, palms forward.

APACHE—Indian (meaning: Elk horn fiddlers). Make the sign for Indian, then with right index rub the left index from end of finger to wrist and back again—2 or 3 times.

APPAREL. Pass both 4 hands over such position of body as is necessary to explain the clothing.

ARAPAHOE—Indian (meaning: MOTHER of all Tribes). First make sign for Indian, then with compressed right hand tap left breast two or three times, which is the MOTHER sign.

ARISE (meaning: to get up). Right 1 hand with back down, pointed to front, raise mostly by wrist action until back is outwards and index points upwards.

ARRANGE. Make signs for WORK and FIX.

ARREST (meaning: to seize hold of and tie at wrist). With both hands in front of body make as though seizing hold of a person. Then cross the wrists, hands closed.

ARRIVE HERE. Place flat left hand against left breast with back out. Hold right 1 hand one foot from body, then bring same briskly against back of left.

ARRIVE THERE. This is the reverse of previous sign. The left flat hand is held out in front; the right 1 hand held against breast, strikes out to palm of left.

ARROW (meaning: drawing an arrow from left hand). Near left breast, hold left cupped hand, then indicate drawing an arrow from same.

ARTILLERYMAN. Make sign for WHITE MAN, for SOLDIER, for WITH, and for CANNON.

ASCEND. Indicate in what way and what was ascended; for instance, a mountain, sign same with left hand, place right 1 hand with index on left wrist and gradually move same upward.

ASHAMED (meaning: drawing blanket over face). Both flat hands—opposite either cheek, backs outward. Cross right hand to left and left hand to right.

ASTONISH. Palm of left hand held over mouth. Many Indians also raise right hand.

This gesture denotes great surprise, great pleasure, or great disappointment.

ASTRAY. Make the sign for HIDE.

ASTRIDE. Separate first and second fingers of right hand and set them astride of upright flat left hand.

ATTACK. Make sign for CHARGE.

ATTEMPT. Make the signs for WORK and PUSH.


AUNT. Make signs for FATHER and SISTER, or MOTHER and SISTER.

AUTOMOBILE. Make the sign for WAGON and then imitate holding steering wheel. (Another modern sign understood by Indians.) A Cheyenne Indian used the signs WAGON, BY ITSELF, GO.

AUTUMN (meaning: falling leaf time). Make sign for TREE, for LEAF. Then let right hand pass slowly downwards to right with wavy motion.

AVOID. Hold 1 hands in front of shoulders pointing upwards. Pass right hand to left and left hand to right and have them miss in passing.

AWL. From manner of using same in sewing with sinew. Use right index as an awl and bore over left index.

AXE. Hold right elbow with left hand, extend right arm with hand held flat, and make as though chopping.


BABY. Place right closed hand across left wrist, palm side up, in position of holding a baby.

BACHELOR. Make the signs for MAN, MARRY and NO.

BACON. Bring extended left hand in front of breast pointing outwards; with right thumb and index clasp base of little finger and rub towards wrist and back again 2 or 3 times; then make the sign for EAT.

BAD (meaning: thrown away). Hold right fist near breast. Throw it out and down to right, and while doing so open the hand.

BAG. Hold left hand in form of opening of bag; then pass compressed right hand into opening. Finish by indicating sides of bag. Demonstrate a large bag by inside of circled arm.

BALD. Make the sign for HAIR. Touch top of head with flat hand. Then make sign WIPED OUT.

BARRACKS. Make the signs for WHITE SOLDIER and HOUSE.

BASHFUL. Make sign for ASHAMED.

BASIN (meaning: depression in the ground). With both 4 hands form a partial circle, then left hand holds position while compressed right hand scoops the ground.

BASKET. Make sign for KETTLE. Then interlock fingers to denote manner of construction.

BATTLE. Make sign for FIGHT, then sign for SHOOT, with both hands pointing towards each other.

BATTLESHIP. Make sign for BOAT, for FIRE, for BIG, and for BIG GUNS. (A flexible modern sign—understood by Indians.)

BAY. (Water). Make sign for WATER, then with right 4 hand out in front of body indicate form or shape of bay.

BAYONET. Make sign for GUN. Then place both 1 hands alongside one another, right index projecting beyond.

BE. Make the sign for SIT.

BEAR. The Crows and some other tribes hold partly closed hands alongside of head to indicate large ears—Others add to this a clawing motion with hands in front clawing downwards.

BEARD. For chin whiskers hang compressed hand below chin—for other kinds of whiskers place hands accordingly.

BEAUTIFUL. The preference seems to be to pass right flat hand downwards over face, then make sign for GOOD—some tribes hold up left hand and look into it as into a mirror.

BEAVER (meaning: tail of beaver striking mud or water). Hold left flat hand in front of body, right flat hand below same, then back of right hand strikes up against left palm sharply.

BED (meaning: spread blankets). Left hand, palm up, fingers extended pointing right front, close to left breast, right hand palm up, on same plane and close to left—move right hand well out in front and to right as though spreading blanket; add sign for SLEEP.

BEFORE, (or PAST TIME.) Point right and left 1 hands, to left, tandem, in position of TIME, then draw right hand towards the right and rear.

BEGIN. Make the sign for PUSH.

BEHIND. (Sense of time.) Make the sign for BEFORE, showing length of time by space between the hands.

BELOW. Both hands backs up in front of body, the left resting on the right; then drop the right more or less below the left to indicate desired distance.

BELT. Use the hands as though clasping on a belt.

BESIDE or BY. Make sign for WITH.

BET (meaning: to gamble). Inasmuch as the betting assumes card playing, the sign is made as though placing 2 stacks of money or chips.

BEYOND. Bring extended left hand, back up in front of body about ten inches, fingers pointing to right; bring extended right hand, back up, between left and body, same height, fingers pointing to left; swing the right hand outwards and upwards in curve beyond left hand, turning right hand back down in movement.

BIBLE. Make the signs for BOOK, MEDICINE, and GREAT.

BICYCLE. A modern sign, like WAGON but with index fingers tandem, then add MAN, ABOARD, GO. Indians vary modern signs.

BIG. Bring compressed 5 hands in front of body, close together, palms in, fingers extended flat, upright, pointing to front, separate the hands—bringing them apart, but keeping them opposite each other.

BIRD (meaning: wings). With flat hands at shoulders, imitate motion of wings. Small birds rapidly, large birds slowly.

BITTER. Touch the tongue with tip of index of right hand and make the sign for BAD.

BLACK. The method most used by Indians is to point to something black. Have seen Indians simply use sign for COLOR as indicating BLACK; others make the sign for COLOR and touch hair or eyebrows.

BLACKFEET—Indians. Make sign for MOCCASIN and for BLACK.

BLANKET (meaning: wrapping about shoulders). Hold the closed hands at height of shoulders near neck, move the right hand to left, left to right, closing movement when wrists are crossed, right hand nearest body.

BLESS YOU. Raise both hands, palm outward, hands pointing front and upward, lower hands several inches, then push them slightly towards person.

BLIND. Place palmar surface of ends of fingers against closed eyes, then sign LOOK and NO.

BLOOD. Bring right hand in front of mouth, first and second fingers against nostrils, move hand downwards with tremulous motion.

BLUE. Make the sign for COLOR, then point to something blue in color, preferably the sky when clear.

BLUFF. Make the sign for MOUNTAIN, raising or lowering fist to indicate height.

BOAT. Hollowed hands held together indicate shape of boat, push out in front to show direction; for canoe make as though paddling; for row boat as though rowing; for steamboat add sign for FIRE.

BOIL (to). Make sign for WATER or FOOD; then sign for KETTLE and FIRE.

BONE. Make sign for the animal for DIE, LONG TIME. Touch part of body that produced bone, then point to something WHITE.

BONNET (war). Carry extended hands from front to rear alongside of head, then carry right hand from crown of head down to below body.

BOOK. Hold both hands in front of body, side by side, palms up, and look at them as if reading. Have seen Indians place palms together and open hands as though opening a book.

BORROW. Make the sign for GIVE (to you or to me) then BYAND BY or little while, and then GIVE—meaning, "Give to me a little while and I will give it back." They have no such word as loan.

BOW (meaning: bending bow to shoot). Left closed hand well out in front of body as though holding bow. Right closed hand held just back of same draws the bow string.

BOWL. Indicate shape with curved hands, held close together.

BOY. Make the sign for WHITE MAN or INDIAN, as the case may be, then bring right hand down on right side to height of boy, index finger pointing up.

BRAIN. Touch forehead with first 2 fingers of right hand.

BRAND. With index and thumb of right hand, form partial circle, other fingers closed—then press hand against left shoulder for shoulder brand, or against hip for hip brand.

BRAVE. Hold left fist 8 inches from center of body, bring right fist six inches above and a little in front of same. Strike downwards with right fist, by elbow, action. second joints of right hard passing close to knuckles of left. Some Indians make the signs HEART and STRONG.

BREAD. Make sign for FLOUR. Then clap hands together as though making a cake, right hand on top; then reverse and repeat, left hand on top. The Indian method of making small fried bread.

BREAK (meaning: breaking a stick held horizontally in the closed hands). Hold closed hands together, backs up, then twist right to right, left to left, as though breaking a stick.


BRIDGE. Both flat hands, backs down, pointing to front, then make sign for RIVER and sign for ACROSS.

BRING. Move the right 1 hand well in front of body, index extended, then draw hand towards body, while curving index finger.

BROAD. Make the sign for BIG.

BROTHER. Bring tips of extended and touching first and second fingers of right hand against lips, fingers horizontal, back up, carry hand straight out from mouth, then make sign for MAN.

BROTHER-IN-LAW. Cross arms on breasts, left arm inside, hands extended, then strike downwards in front with right hand.

BROOK. Make the signs for RIVER and SMALL.

BROWN. Make the sign for COLOR, then point to something BROWN.

BRUSH. Hold the hands as for GRASS, but with arms extended outward from the waist.

BUFFALO (meaning: horns of buffalo). Bring partly closed hands, palms inward, close to sides of head. Raise hands slightly until wrists are on edges of head, and carry slightly forward.

BUFFALO ROBE. Make sign for BUFFALO and for BLANKET.

BURN. Make the sign for FIRE. Then indicate what was burned or injured by the fire. If entirely consumed add WIPED OUT.

BURY. Make the signs for BLANKET, WRAP and DIG.

BUT. Make the sign for PERHAPS.

BUY. Make sign for MONEY and for EXCHANGE.

BY AND BY. Make the sign for FUTURE, advancing the right hand past and beyond the left hand. Some Indians make the sign for WAIT.

BY ITSELF. Hold extended right hand in front of right breast, with back down and fingers pointing to front; by wrist action strike the hand to left and towards body with a jerk, repeating two or three times. This is a metaphoric idiom used with other gestures. A gift with this sign becomes a "free gift." No gift expected in return. It also means FREEDOM, ALONE and SOLITARY.


Excerpted from Indian Sign Language by William Tomkins. Copyright © 1969 Dover Publications, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Indian Sign Language 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
wordwrite More than 1 year ago
This little book (a facsimile of the original) was prepared by Tomkins for Boy Scouts; it illustrates his extensive knowledge of the sign language of the Plains Indians. He provides clear illustrations for each sign as well as the explanation in English, French and German. There is a chapter of common phrases, and explanations of how to build sentences. He includes some information specific to Scouting, and some general information on native life, including a bit about the story painting done by the Natives on buffalo hides. I have a special interest in Native sign language and this book has provided clear enough instruction that by studying it my husband and I can communicate on a basic level. Our interest extends to portrayal of native people in the Fur Trade, and this book has given us a sufficient command of the sign language to enhance our interpretation. I think this book could be used to very good effect for scouting or just family entertainment by youngsters as young as five or six. (I admit it: this little book is one of my favorites on the subject for clarity and ease of use.)
Guest More than 1 year ago
This is the easiest to understand book, it is so simple to remember. It also has convienient sub titles in french and german. in the back also contains pictographs and meanings, also has native language in short phrases that u can learn.