American Indian Sign Language


Good Morning (or Afternoon or Evening), depending on when you’re joining us today. 

Before I start the discussion on American Indian Sign Language, let me say that I will be giving away another book to one of the bloggers today.  All you have to do is leave a comment.  Applicable to the greater 50 US States and/or to Canada.  Void where prohibited.

sf[7]To your left is the cover of the book INDIAN TALK by Iron Eyes Cody.  I have this book, but I also have 4 other books on Indian sign language, one of them being published in 1881.  When I’m writing I use all of these books, as they are all similar and yet in some aspects, not.  One of my books — and of course I can’t find it right now — has not only Indian sign language, but the language of trails and signs left on trails.  I find that fascinating.  But before we get into how to say certain things, want to review a little of its history?

sf[8]All tribes could communicate via the universal sign language.  Complex conversations could be carried on that were quiet elaborate,  and once sign language was well known — just as we do with our language — shortcuts were taken, with a simple gesture meaning a lot.  Expressions mattered also.  A frown, a smile.  Indeed, if a white man came on the prairie and didn’t know this universal sign language or couldn’t communicate in any way, he was considered rather stupid, or at the very least, rude, for not taking the time and effort to learn.

sfCAJO2XR7It’s generally accepted that the Plains Indians cultivated the sign language to a large degree and that they kept it alive all through the years, but even at the beginning of the European’s contact with the American Indian, Colorado talks about their sign language.  In the words of this explorer:

“That they were very intelligent is evident from the fact that although they conversed by means of signs, they made themselves understood so well that there was no need of an interpreter.” . . . “They are kind people and not cruel, they are faithful, they are able to make themselves very well understood by means of signs.”

images[1]Many of the Plains tribes believed that the language originated with the Kiowa tribe, who learned it in Mexico.  But one thing is generally agreed, and that is that the Kiowa were most proficient in using the language.  Here’s another quote I found interesting:

“The language of signs is so perfectly understood in the Western country, and the Indians themselves are such admirable sign talkers, that, after a little use, no difficulty whatever exists in carrying on a conversation by such a channel; and there are few mountain men who are at a loss in thoroughly understanding and making themselves intelligible by signs alone, although they neither speak or understand a worn, of the Indian tongue.” Ruxton, NY 1848.  Adventures in Mexico and the Rocky Mountains

3397108[1]In my very first book, LAKOTA SURRENDER, the heroine and hero communicate at first by means of sign language.  Truth is, I loved this research and I had fun making the signs myself.   Okay, so that’s probably enough background.  Let’s learn some talk.

“Me” — point to yourself with your thumb; “you” — point to whomever you are speaking to or about; “yes” — start with a closed fist in right hand, index finger extended.  At the same time you drop your hand, close your index finger sigh your thumb; “no” — start with right hand held against chest, fingers pointing left.  As you swing you hand around in a half circle, turn your hand so that the palm is facing up.  “Love” — man crosses his hands over his chest — woman touches her heart.

Let’s make a sentence, shall we.  Let’s say “I love you” in sign language.  Did you do it?  Easy, huh?images[3]

Okay, here’s another.  “question”:  hold your right hand up about shoulder level, palm facing out.  Rotate the hand slowly a few times — this means a question is coming.  Here’s another:  “possession” — meant to show who owns what or to say something like my… whatever.  Place your clenched hand close to the neck/shoulder.  Bring fist down and foreward with thumb pointing forward.  “mother” — With your hand cupped, bring it over to the left shoulder/chest area and tap your chest two of three times.

Okay, are you ready?  Let’s say “Where is my mother?”  Make the sign for question.  Then the sign for mother, then the sign for possession.  Did you do it?

images[4]images[2]There are many different books out there on sign language if you are interested in learning it or reading it.  I should probably also say that if you watch — or can get your hands on — any of the old silent movies  — or some of the early, early talkies — they had true American Indians playing those roles — and you’ll see them talking sign language.  Something to really see.

51obnqdgasl_sl500_aa240_1Here’s the cover copy of my latest book, out on the market, BLACK EAGLE.  Please pick up your copy today.  And look for SENECA SURRENDER coming soon — only two months away — April 2010.

So how’d you do?  Did you like the sign language?  Come on in and let’s talk.

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KAREN KAY aka GEN BAILEY is the multi-published author of American Indian Historical Romances. She has written for such prestigious publishers as AVON/HarperCollins, Berkley/Penguin/Putnam and Samhain Publishing. KAREN KAY’S great grandmother was Choctaw Indian and Kay is honored to be able to write about the American Indian Culture.
Please refer to for all contest rules.

48 thoughts on “American Indian Sign Language”

  1. Hi Kay, it was so great to meet you in person on Sunday! And this blog is terrific. I tried the signs as I read. I doubt I’d get an “A” though.

    The idea of a universal sign language is so perfect, isn’t it?

    Thanks again for another informative wonderful post. oxoxoxoxoxxo

  2. I have always been a little fascinated with sign language. Some years ago I took a class called Signing Exact English, it was a very interesting class. Our test at the end of the course was to order a meal in sign language. We had to sit in groups at tables and order our individual meals with the teacher. It was a lot of fun and very interesting. I don’t know how much I would remember now, it’s been a lot of years ago, but I enjoyed taking it at the time.

  3. Hi, Kay. There are such interesting posts here at P and P! I tried the signs, too, and think I was able to do them okay. Is American Indian Signing is a little like American Signing for the deaf? I know yes in AS is a closed fist, moving your wrist up and down as if you are knocking on a door.

    I took a class this summer (teacher renewal) called See the Sound. It is a concept that each letter has a hand and finger motion for each sound–not letter, but sound. The instructor said she has used it for over 20 years and kids who were several levels below their reading/age level learned to read and read better using the system. It was interesting.

  4. Hi, Kay. There are such interesting posts here at P and P! I tried the signs, too, and think I was able to do them okay. Is American Indian Signing a little like American Signing for the deaf? I know yes in AS is a closed fist, moving your wrist up and down as if you are knocking on a door.

    I took a class this summer (teacher renewal) called See the Sound. It is a concept that each letter has a hand and finger motion for each sound–not letter, but sound. The instructor said she has used it for over 20 years and kids who were several levels below their reading/age level learned to read and read better using the system. It was interesting.

  5. Oops, I’m not sure why there’s a second post. My computer has been doing this to me this morning on other sites, too. Sorry.

  6. Hi, Karen! Thank you for another terrific post! “All tribes could communicate via the universal sign language.” Fascinating…and wise! Why can’t the world today be as intuitive and communicative? We might make real progress if we follow some of the more humane tried and true ways of our ancestors : )

  7. Hi Karen : ) that was fun I always enjoy learning about the Indian Culture from you, I remember before my brother and sister-in-law died i saw a card on their Christmas tree of a Indian Tribe and i ask my sister in law about it and she said it was a tribe my brother had sent money to for quite a few years I found that odd because he was very cautious about spending, their wasn’t alot left over for extra stuff, I wish i had ask more questions but he was a real history buff so i know he found importance in it or he wouldn’t have sent it. I remember when i was in school we were taught sign laungage and they go over it with kids in school now but it’s not a assigned thing that they have to learn which i think if everyone knew sign language even if we couldn’t speak a language of others we could still communicate threw sign. Your post are always educational Love you : )

  8. Hello Kay 🙂 I learned how to make the signs for letters when I read a book about Helen Keller, but I’ve never learned American sign language. It’s amazing to watch, though. So expressive! Thanks for a great post!

  9. Hi Tanya!

    I loved meeting you on Sunday. What a wonderful day that was. I’ve already felt as though I know you and it was great to meet you in person and talk and chat. Am looking forward to getting together with you as much as possible. : )

    Thanks for your comment, too. Isn’t it kinda fun to do this?

  10. Hi Linda!

    Thanks so much for coming here today! Ordering your food in sign. Wow! I’m sure it can be done. When I think of the conversations that used to be done in Indian sign language — incredible. : )

  11. Hi Deb!

    Now that’s interesting — about signing each letter and increasing the children’s ability to read. What an interesting concept.

    American Indian sign language isn’t the same as the sign language for the deaf, but it’s a similar idea, I think. I do find it fascinating. Like I said, in my first book, LAKOTA SURRENDER, I go into this in detail. : )

  12. Oh, Virginia, I so echo your sentiment. Interestingly, Russell Means — activist, actor and founder of the Republic of Lakotah — says (I’ve been watching his videos lately) that Matriarchy is the key to the Lakotah’s (and many of the American Indian tribes) success. He puts the cause of many of the ills of society squarely on the head of Patriarchy — here’s a link if you would like to watch it.

    The Iroquois, who had a confederation that stood for unity, freedom of the individual to think, be and do, and who had a government that protected the people and their rights — and was founded somewhere around 1142 AD (according to the Indians, themselves) and lasted for over 600 years) — was completely matriarical. Women held the balance of power — and they did it without emasculating their men.

    No one could go to war unless the women agreed. Don’t you wish we had that system today?

  13. Hi Lori!

    Wonderful to see you here today! I loved your story. I’m sorry, however, to hear that you lost your brother and sister-in-law. Hope you don’t mind if I ask about them or what happened. If you do, please don’t feel you have to tell me. My heart goest out to you.

    Thanks so much for your thoughts, Lori. Always wonderful to hear from you. Here’s some love for you, too!

  14. Very interesting post Kay, I have never learned sigh language but I should. Near where I live there is a school for the deaf, so you see a lot of people here that talk with their hands. I find it interesting! My son has a book but I have never got it out to try to learn.

  15. Hi Kay –
    This is great info on signing. Loved the pictures too. When my kids were younger, we used to sign short little phrases, like I love you and such. I’d hoped to learn more, but we never did. Thanks for a great signing lesson!

  16. Kay, you always come up with most interesting blogs. I think it’s pretty amazing how people can communicate using nothing more than sign language. But I guess when people want to carry on a conversation they’ll do most anything. To me, it’d be awfully difficult though to sign a complete drawn out conversation. I’m glad I wasn’t born without the ability to speak or I’d be lost.

  17. Hi Linda!

    Yes, I hear what you’re saying, but if you grew up signing and learning it as you spoke, it’d be a second language to you — and I think that’s what it was to the American Indian tribes. 🙂

  18. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if they taught at least the basics in school. I find learning about the true Americans very fasicinating and love reading about the different tribes. My daughter and her signifcant other have been attending sweat lodges and learning quite a bit.

  19. When I worked at a preschool years ago, we taught them the alphabet in sign language… always wanted to know more… I guess I can always add a book of sign language to my reading pile!

  20. Hi Quilt Lady!

    Thanks so much for your post. In my research I’ve just always found this interesting — if only because everyone in Native America knew and could communicate this way. Like another poster, I wish we still had this option today. 🙂

  21. Hi Jeanne!

    Yeah, I wish we all had a grounding in this, too. Actually I think it was ingenius — regardless of your language, you were always able to talk to someone. 🙂

  22. I started teaching my daughter sign language when she was pre-verbal. It was a blessing. She could tell me things like more, all done, hungry, and thirsty. We also learned things like animals, clothing, food, body parts, etc. I knew it was successful when one day, walking through the mall, my 14 mo old daughter starts getting excited and signing, “Shoes!!! More shoes!!!”
    Yes, she is now almost 4 and still has a ‘thing’ for shoes. LOL!

  23. a very interesting and informative post; thanks.

    I wished I knew sign language-this one or the one the deaf use. It would be so useful at sometime.

  24. very interesting kay!
    it’s obvious you are passionate about your topic! it really shows in your books that you know what you are talking about–all that work doesn’t go unnoticed!
    my only experience with signing is through my daycare–they use sign language for the toddlers before they are able to speak
    it’s amazing how well it works!
    thanks for the great post–interesting as always!
    love your books-thank you for the chance at winning one 🙂

  25. Karen,
    Interesting post as usual. Have learned a little sign language at times, but remember very little. In the 80’s we learned to sign WE ARE THE WORLD. I taught it to several groups of Girl Scouts and whoever else was interested. Was a lot of fun. Languages have never been a strong point for me and signing is no different.

    Hope the weather is turning to Spring in your neck of the woods.

  26. Great topic! I really need to get one of those books to add to my Native American collection.

    I also see I need to incorporate sign language in my next two books.


  27. This was a very interesting post. I agree that it is too bad that the usage of sign language isn’t an every day thing. Having a deaf child at our school for a few years let us know how important it is and I took classes on it but as with so many things, what you don’t use you loose and I am not very good at it anymore.

  28. Hi Karen I don’t mind telling you My sister-in-law actually died giving birth that’s the day my Brother’s life changed forever (and ours) they had never even dated other people and got married young (not due to pregnancy) married almost 25 years she was 42 when she died. Time did not heal anything for him and he was never the same he passed away 9 years later doctors say it may have been pnemonia not really sure it was a very disturbing death.

  29. Oh, Stephanie, this is wonderful. I’d heard of doing this with children when they’re young — so they can communicate to you. Shoes — I love it!

    Thanks for your imput. 🙂

  30. Hi Tabitha!

    I think this is great for toddlers. I wished I’d been able to talk to my daughters like this when they were young. It would have been wonderful.

    And thanks for the praise. You are most gracious. 🙂

  31. Hi Patricia,

    I must admit that languages aren’t easy for me, either. I particularly like the sign language, though, for some reason. I also was a girl scout — but I never learned to make it on my own in the woods, something that I think would have been fun to learn. 🙂

    Thanks for your post.

  32. You know, Connie, that’s the argument many of the American Indian tribes use to try to keep their language alive. A culture is told about through its language — when that’s taken away, one tends to lose his/her culture.

    Forcing the children in days of yore to refrain from speaking their own language was simply an act of cruelty, I think. Not that I don’t understand why it was done or the justifications for it — but after all is said and done, that’s all it was — justification for doing something to another that one knows one shouldn’t.

    In the end, the person himself, and his Maker know the difference.

  33. Oh, Lori, I’m so sorry. We tend to think that these things don’t happen nowadays, but in the old days, it was well known that women often died giving birth to their children. That’s why there were many children raised with step-mothers. I’m so sorry. Thank you for telling me, though. Did the baby live? And if so, how is the child doing now?

  34. Yes she did she had to have something done to her heart right after she was born, her brother took her away from my mother and father after his dad died which hurt my parents very much however they recieve a check for her living with them, if it wasn’t for that she would still be with my parents sad to say but i’m sure this is true. She has seemed to adjust to this however i don’t get to see her much now but we’re here for her when she needs something. People don’t realize what can happen when a woman is delivering and the most joyful occasion in someones life can quickly turn into the most painful, in her case the amniotic fluid got in her blood strem and at the time the dr.’s did not know what was happening.

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