Through Indian Sign Language: The Fort Sill Ledgers of Hugh Lenox Scott and Iseeo, 1889-1897

Through Indian Sign Language: The Fort Sill Ledgers of Hugh Lenox Scott and Iseeo, 1889-1897

by William C. Meadows

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780806152943
Publisher: University of Oklahoma Press
Publication date: 09/22/2015
Series: Civilization of the American Indian Series , #274
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 520
File size: 11 MB
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About the Author

William C. Meadows is Associate Professor of Anthropology and Native American Studies at Missouri State University, Springfield. A scholar of Plains Indian cultures. He is the author of Kiowa, Apache, and Comanche Military Societies: Enduring Veterans, 1800 to the Present (University of Texas Press, 2003) and The Comanche Code Talkers of World War II and Kiowa Ethnogeography (University of Texas Press, 2003).

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Through Indian Sign Language

The Fort Sill Ledgers of Hugh Lenox Scott and Iseeo 1889â"1897

By William C. Meadows


Copyright © 2015 University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, Publishing Division of the University
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8061-5294-3


Plains Indian Sign Language

SIGNS AND GESTURES DATE BACK TO THE EARLIEST RECORDED times, as both a substitute for and a supplement to speech. The use of signs in addition to spoken language continues today in almost all cultures, especially in situations in which sound is impeded by noise, distance, or a need for silence (Davidson 1950:3; Walker 1953:168). Numerous examples of the use of nonvocal forms of communication to facilitate our social relationships are found in religions, occupations, sports, the stock market, political movements, traffic control, and military activities. In addition to the 6,700 known spoken languages of the world, at least two hundred extant signed languages are known (Davis 2010:183; Gordon 2005). Along with a material culture based on the horse, tipi, bison, feathered headdresses, and animal hides, sign language has long been a distinguishing characteristic associated with historic North American Plains Indians. Although best known and recorded among Plains Indians and those groups bordering the plains region, forms of sign language are documented across most of North America. Sign language is employed both as an alternative to speech and as a primary language used by deaf members in at least forty Native American languages in twelve distinct North American language families (phyla), including some groups in every geographic culture area. While North American Indians are known to have used several forms of sign language, the form known as standard Plains Indian Sign Language (PISL) is the best documented. During its apogee, PISL was used throughout the plains and adjacent regions in a geographic area of over 1.5 million square miles, equal to the European Union's twenty-seven member states combined (Davis 2006:8, 2010:6–8, 171).

Plains Indian Sign Language is the most sophisticated of all known North American Indian nonspeech communication systems. It consists of an extensive vocabulary of physical hand and body signs and movements to signify individual words, phrases, and concepts. Sign language is a communication system independent of spoken language and thus not an alternative system of expression, such as the relationship between a spoken language and its written form. Just as the placement of the tongue and lips determines speech sounds, sign language is produced by placing one or both hands in varied positions (open, closed, fingers extended or curved, and so forth) and motions. Signs are both iconic (physically resembling what they refer to) and symbolic (containing an arbitrary or conventionally agreed upon relation between sign and meaning). While PISL is largely iconic, convention has been a significant factor in its evolution and use. Because sign language can make effective use of icons by devising gestures that resemble their referents, humans of different language groups often resort to the use of gestures to communicate (Taylor 1996:278).

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries several U.S. writers referred to the ability of Native American peoples to communicate over distance through a variety of means known as the "moccasin telegraph." Ethnographic accounts and Indian autobiographies describe the use of varied forms of signal chains using smoke signals, mirrors (heliograph flashes), piles of stones or other materials, bent tree limbs (turning trees), relay runners, animal calls, distanced signaling using the body, robes, horses, lances, or thrown dirt, tracking skills, and sign language (Gelo 2012:381–83; Yandell 2012:535). Yandell (2012:535, 555–56) reports that by the late nineteenth century at least some Indians had expanded the range of their telegraphing capabilities by using telescopes to pass signs to others over several miles. Before the Battle of the Little Bighorn, a number of Crow scouts using telescopes created a "sight chain" by spreading out at several points that enabled them to pass sign-language communications on three separate occasions to the U.S. encampment faster than by horse or foot. Plenty Coups (Linderman 1962) reports numerous instances in which he used a telescope in scouting and identifying game, villages, and enemies. As Jeffrey Davis (1997:115) notes, tribal, regional, historical, and other variants of Native American Sign Language existed, but the best-documented cases are from the Great Plains, southwestern United States, and northwestern Canada.

During the historic period (circa post-1540) so many languages existed in the plains region that verbal communication was often difficult. As Marianne Mithun (1999:1) notes, while the languages of Europe are classified into only three language families (Indo-European, Finno-Ugric, and Basque), North American languages belong to over fifty language families. Although the exact factors leading to the development of PISL are unknown, several elements may have contributed, including communication by and with the deaf, intertribal gatherings and councils, spontaneous signing in interactions between peoples who speak different languages, situations requiring silent communication (such as warfare and hunting contexts), and communication across distances that inhibit adequate verbal communication. Hugh L. Scott recorded several instances of sign language use between tribes during conflict situations. The development of extensive cross-cultural exchange via prehistoric trade networks, travel, and social intercourse, which only increased with the rise of plains equestrianism, also likely contributed to the development and growth of sign language. Because the core demographic area for bison hunting closely resembled the area of sign language use, John Peabody Harrington (1938) suggested that the constant intermingling of diverse groups with different languages in pursuit of this animal prompted the development of sign language. The need for increased cross-cultural communication across greater distances would likely have arisen from this situation and probably contributed to the number of regional sign language systems that developed on the plains. Hunting and warfare situations that required silence provided other uses for sign language but were probably not the primary factors contributing to its development. Jeffrey Davis and Melanie McKay-Cody (2010:150–51) classify traditional Indian sign language into five forms: intertribal communication; storytelling; rituals; distance communications during raids, war, and hunting parties; and use involving deaf family members.

Although some local languages such as Chinook, Comanche, Lakota, and Apache became lingua francas, none was widespread enough to dominate the entire plains region economically, politically, and thus linguistically as languages such as English, Spanish, and Chinese have in other regions. As Davis (2010:12) notes, "The lack of a single dominant group in the Plains cultural area may be a reason for the adoption of the signed language over any particular spoken language." Thus Davis (2005b:49) suggests linguistic heterogeneity as a major factor: "Over many generations, signed language appears to have emerged as a way to make communications possible between individuals speaking so many different mother tongues." These communication systems became known as Indian sign language or, more accurately, Plains Indian Sign Language (West 1960; Taylor 1996; Farnell 1996). PISL became a lingua franca used primarily by hearing American Indians who were already fluent in at least one spoken language. "In brief, primary sign systems are developed, acquired, and used by deaf people as a first language, whereas the so-called alternate sign systems are developed, transmitted, and used by hearing individuals already competent in a spoken language" (Davis 2010:180).

William P. Clark noted the need to learn the cultural context of Indian life in order to comprehend the conceptions of sign language and to become proficient in the language, which has its own syntax. As Clark (1885:18) described it, "articles, conjunctions, and prepositions are omitted, and adjectives follow the nouns. Verbs are used in the present tense; nouns and verbs are used in a singular number, the idea of plurality being expressed in some other way. Abbreviation is constantly practiced." Clark (1885:17–18) provided a hypothetical example of the relationship between speech and sign language.

I arrived here to-day to make a treaty, — my one hundred lodges are camped beyond the Black Hills, near the Yellowstone River. You are a great chief, — pity me, I am poor, my five children are sick and have nothing to eat. The snow is deep and the weather intensely cold. Perhaps God sees me. I am going. In one month I shall reach my camp.

In sign language this would be conveyed in the following order of syntax;

I — arrive here — to-day — to make — treaty. My — hundred — lodge — camp — beyond — Hills — Black — near — river — called — Elk — you — chief — great — pity me — I poor — My — five — child — sick — food — all gone (or wiped out) — Snow — deep — cold — brave or strong. Perhaps — chief great (or Great Mystery) — above — see — me — I — go. Moon — die — I — arrive there — my — camp.


While the exact origin of Plains Indian Sign Language is unknown, both mythological and historical references exist. Native American accounts reference times, past and present, when animals and humans could speak verbally to one another. This also sometimes applied to the use of sign language. Pretty Shield (Linderman 1972:188) provided an account in which a white bear, serving as a spiritual helper to a Crow woman and her child, spoke to her on several occasions but in one instance at a distance "signed to her to come alone to him to hear what he had to say." Another account collected by Scott (vol. I:135, chapter 4 in this volume) comes from one of the Kiowa origin stories and involves the Kiowa culture heroes known as the Twin Boys and the trickster Scinday (Sainday, Sinday, and properly Séndé). This account describes a time when Indians could not speak and used sign language. Like most oral and religious history, this account ethnocentrically places the storyteller's group at the center of the universe. The Twin Boys meet Scinday and travel west with him to his territory. Each boy marries a medicine woman, and Scinday marries the other four. All Indian people descend from these marriages. After Scinday placed the sun in the sky, Indian people began to increase more quickly. Scinday then called a council of all the people together and created hearing and spoken language to supersede sign language.

one time Scinday called them all together to a big council and told them to come up one at a time. He rubbed some medicine in the palm of his hand, like rubbing tobacco, and spit in it, and put his fingers on it and when a man came up he rubbed his finger on his lips and poked his finger in his ears, bored his ears so he could hear, and then they told him to speak. And when he spoke to suit him he put them aside and did the same to another man, making them to speak and understand different languages. Before that they used only the sign language, but now they spoke different languages — Cheyenne, Pawnee, Sioux, Wichita, Kiowa, Comanche, and Apache, all different.

Historical accounts describing the use of Native American sign language date to the 1520s. Conquistador Alvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca (Covey 1993; Wurtzburg and Campbell 1995:154–55) reported several instances of groups using sign language during his travels from 1527 to 1535 in what is now the region of Florida to Arizona and northern Mexico and kept notes regarding linguistic affiliations. Pedro de Castañeda in the expedition led by Francisco Vázquez de Coronado also recorded the presence of sign language among several southern plains tribes in 1540–42, and sign language is firmly documented among multiple Texas Indian groups in the 1740s. Conversely, sign language is not recorded in the northern plains until much later and is believed to have spread across the central and northern plains after the 1740s. George Drouillard, the son of a French trader and a Shawnee mother, was hired by Meriwether Lewis as a "civilian interpreter" to accompany the Lewis and Clark expedition of 1803–1806. In addition to being a skilled hunter, guide, and scout, he was hired primarily because he knew sign language, which he is recorded using with the varied tribes that they encountered along the way in several instances. While William Samarin (1987) argues against the precontact existence of Indian Sign Language, Susan Wurtzburg and Lyle Campbell (1995) provide numerous examples from Louisiana, Texas, and northern Mexico. Subsequent reports of sign language continue into the nineteenth century.

Historical evidence suggests that PISL may have originated in the region of the Texas Gulf Coast and northern Mexico (Clark 1885:11–13; Tomkins 1926:89; Goddard 1979; Wurtzburg and Campbell 1995). According to Jeffrey Davis (2006:6–7), "The generally accepted hypothesis among scholars (see Campbell 1997; Mithun 1999) is that North American Indian Sign Language originated and spread from the Gulf Coast, became the intertribal lingua franca of the Great Plains, and spread throughout the northwest territories of the United States and Canada." Alan Taylor (1996:275) further suggests that trade may have stimulated the development of sign language, as it was clearly a major factor in its diffusion after the arrival of the horse.

Davis (2010:182) suggests that PISL may have originated with the deaf. "PISL has been transmitted from one generation to the next and acquired as the primary and secondary language by deaf and hearing members of these communities. PISL most likely developed from the emergent-signed language of tribal members who were deaf or with deaf family members; and, over time, members of the larger hearing community acquired it as an alternative to spoken language. As PISL was transmitted from one generation to the next, and acquired by both deaf and hearing Indian participants, it was linguistically expanded with greater lexical and grammatical complexity."

Although sign language became the most extensive lingua franca on the plains after about 1740, not all tribes were recognized as equally proficient in its use (West 1960; Taylor 1996:275; Farnell 1996). As Taylor (1996:275) describes, "Kiowas are frequently mentioned in the nineteenth century as excellent sign talkers, and this tribe was certainly a center of dissemination of sign use in the Southern Plains." Geographically the Kiowas held an intermediate position between the tribes of Texas and the tribes of the northern plains. The Comanches, Cheyennes, and Arapahos were also highly regarded as sign talkers by some observers.

Two accounts recorded by Scott state that the Kiowas and Comanches acquired the sign language from the Cheyennes and imply, at least based on their views, that it may have originated with the Cheyennes. According to one account (Scott n.d.a:II:161–64; chapter 5 in this volume) from a Kiowa man, "born two summers after the stars fell" (1833, thus born in 1835), who discusses the Kiowas' time in the northern plains, women were well versed in sign language and the Kiowas may have learned sign language from the Cheyennes. "When we live[d] up there and fought the Cheyennes we had different languages and then [the] Cheyennes made the sign language and we used that all the time I was growing up. The Cheyennes know that better than any other tribes, they made [it]. We do not see that now like we used to see it. Women and everybody knew it then." Similarly another account recorded by Scott from the Comanche named Cabaya (Scott n.d.a:I:120, chapter 4 in this volume) states, "The Comanche sign was given us by the Cheyennes without doubt. They made the sign language and gave the names to the Kiowas, Comanches, Apaches, and Arapahoes in signs." As Scott (1898) noted, members of every tribe that he asked stated that PISL was of great antiquity, noted that it was handed down to them as their spoken languages were, and attributed its origins to other tribes. Thus, instead of attempting to link the origins of PISL to a single ethnic group, Scott believed that all tribes that used sign language had some influence on its development.


Excerpted from Through Indian Sign Language by William C. Meadows. Copyright © 2015 University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, Publishing Division of the University. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA PRESS.
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Table of Contents


List of Illustrations,
Kiowa Pronunciation Guide,
1. Plains Indian Sign Language,
2. Hugh Lenox Scott (1853–1934),
3. Iseeo, Other Native Consultants, and the Scott Ledgers at Fort Sill,
4. Volume I: Indian Sign Language Notes,
5. Volume II: Sign Language,
6. Volume III: Sign Language and Stories and Fables,
Appendix. Troop L, 7th Cavalry Rosters, Fort Sill,

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