Wireless Com — 18th & 19th Century — American Indian Style

Good Morning!

Wireless Com in the 1700-1800?s?  Am I crazy?   Now, while it’s true that my life is more than a little busy right now, here’s hoping I’m not crazy yet.  The above statement is true, however, if a little bit overstated.  Long ago, American Indians had a very efficient and wireless manner in which to communicate.  Would you like to have a look at how it was done?  Hopefully by the time you read this post, you’ll be able to “talk” in the same way.

morning1b.jpgLong ago the American Indian needed a way in which to communicate at long distances.  Alerts needed to be sent, messages about where was the game, enemies seen, etc.  These all needed to be communicated in an efficient manner.   How was it done?  Well, let’s have a look. 

 The most common methods in use were with blanket signals, smoke and mirrors.  There was also an entire system in use called marking a trail so that others who knew the signals could follow your trail and could read all the signs that you saw.  You could also tell where the game was, or where the enemy was, how many there were, where they were located, as well as where you had gone and when and many, many other thing.  In the woods this was done by marking trees, plants and other signs left.  On the prairie it was done with piling up stones into certain images.

chandler-seated.jpgFor instance, a blanket rolled up tightly or clothing rolled up so that a signal could be sent,  was used when people were within sight of you.  If you stand with the arms outstretched so as to form the letter “T”, that is a danger signal.  If the person so signaling runs back and forth, it is the sign that the danger is approaching and if in addition to this the blanket is thrown horizontally, it means a rescue must be done.  If game has been sighted, the scout runs back and forth — and means it’s a small herd.  If the scout runs around in a circle, thowing his blanket in the air, it means it is a large herd.  If a scout were to run to and fro with the blanket trailing behind him, it meant bad news coming.  If the blanket were held over the head, it meant something important was coming from a distance.

tjay1.jpgAnyone who’s watched old Westerns knows about smoke signals.  These signals carried over very long distances on the prairie and the codes varied depending on the tribe.  (You wouldn’t want your enemy knowing your own special code.)  These were often used by war parties, announcing their news, giving their news — how many scalps or horses taken, etc.  A drum was another devise used within the community.  And when the white man came, the mirror became a tool for long distance communication.  One long flash is the signal for attention, and as soon as you receive an answer back, you then transmit your message.  One short flash means that game is in sight.  Two short flashese means the enemy is in sight.  Two short flashes followed by one long one is a call for rescue.  Two short flashes and one long followed by two more short flashes means the danger is over.  Four short flashes means a metting with a stranger is forthcoming or news is coming from a distance.

adam-beach.jpgBut what about meeting another tribe.  There were so many different languages in use in America, how did the tribes communicate with each other?   This is where we come into one of my favorite subjects.  In fact, in my very first book, LAKOTA SURRENDER — which is currently available in ebook format (and for a song practically), both heroine and hero communicate with the language of gestures.  Okay, so how was it done?  First a few rules:  Adjectives follow nouns, conjunctions and prepositions are omitted, and verbs are used in the present tense only.  Intricate communicates were carried on in this fashion, but here’s a few to get you started.

Attention or Question:  Hold right hand, palm outward, fingers and thumb separated, well out in front of boddy at height of shoulder.  Some tribes rotated the hand.  This is used to begin conversations.

I understand:  Throw right forearm out in front of body with fingers closed, except index finger, which is curved and drawn back.  This indicates that you grasp and draw something toward you, and is used occasionally while another is talking.  If you don’t understand, use the Question sign.

I:  Touch breast with index finger of right hand.

You:  Point to whomever you are talking to.

Glad:  (Sunshine in heart).  Place compressed right hand, fingers slightly curved, over region of heart; bring left hand, palm downward, in sweeping curve to left of body, at the same time turning it palm upward, as if turning up or unfolding something.  The expression of the face should correspond.

Love:  Corss both arms over bosom.

Good:  (Level with heart.)  Hold extended right hand, back up, close to region of heart; move briskly forward and to right.

Bad:  (Throw away.)  Hold one of both hands, closed, in front of body, backs upward; open with a snap at the same time moving them outward and downward.

Sad:  Place the closed fist against the heart.  Appropriate facial expression.

Surprised:  Cover mouth with palm of right hand, open eyes widely, and move head slightly backward.

Angry:  (Mind twisted.)  Place closed right fist against forehead and twist from right to left.

House: Interlock fingers of both hands, holding them at right angles.

Sleep:  Incline head to right and rest cheek on right palm.  For going into camp, or to indicate the length of a journey, make sign for Sleep and hold up as many fingers as nights were spent on the way.

Woman:  (Long hair.)  Bring both palms down sides of head, shoulders, and bosom, with sweeping gesture.

Man:  Hold right hand closed except for the index finger.  Hold index finger up about stomach level with an upward sweep.  (I’ll let you determine what this one means.)  : )

Beautiful:  Hold palms up like mirror in front of face; make sign for Good.

Liar:  (Forked tongue.)  Bring separated first and second fingers of right hand close to lips.

It is finished:  Bring closed hands in front of body, thumbs up, second joints touching; then separate.  This sign ends a speech or conversation.

 Okay, are you ready?  Make the sign for “I love you.”  Got it?  Okay.  Now make the sign for “I am sleepy.”  And how about “You are beautiful.”  Or how about “I love my man.”  or “I love my woman.”  Can you make the sign for “I’m sleepy?”  Or how about “It’s in the house.”  Alright, here’s an easy one.  Make the sign for good, and at the same time say either “Waste’” (Lakota for good) or Soka-pii (Blackfeet for good).  Or how about “You have surprised me.”

Like I said, long intricate conversations could be carried on in this manner and often the hand signals would be so fast and so appreviated, that only he or she fully trained in the use of them could follow.

Again this is a favorite subject of mine.  In my book, LAKOTA SURRENDER, I hope you’ll be entertainen not only by the hand signals shared by the hero and heroine, but by their love that grows as fully as the beauty that surrounds them.   So come on into and leave a comment.  I’ll be giving away a copy of the ebook, LAKOTA SURRENDER to some lucky blogger today.  Come on in.

NOTE: I used Charles A. Eastman’s book INDIAN SCOUT CRAFT AND LORE for this information




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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 https://petticoatsandpistols.com/sweepstakesrules for all contest rules.

26 thoughts on “Wireless Com — 18th & 19th Century — American Indian Style”

  1. Enjoyed your post!! Their signals are so interesting. Would love to win your book. Sounds great!! Thank you for entering me in your giveaway.
    Barbara Thompson

  2. Great post, Kay! I am always learning something new from your posts. I knew about the smoke and mirror signals, but didn’t know about the blanket signals. Thanks for sharing this information with us.

  3. Oh wow! That was way too cool. I have drawings of the symbols American Indians used in leaving marks behind telling stories, but this is the first time I’ve read about the hand signals and smoke signals. Thank you for such an informative post.

  4. How Interesting!! I always learn something new when I read your blogs, Kay! Tank you for expanding my education!

  5. Kay, this is so interesting. But it was certainly useful when a person didn’t speak the language or needed to get a message to someone. You always come up with the most interesting things.

  6. Hi Becky!

    You know what always strikes me about these things is that it doesn’t take massive technology for people to communicate and to figure these things out. We forget that sometimes. 🙂

  7. Really enjoyed reading about the hands as a form of communication. Maybe that is why some of us still use our hands when we speak.
    The book sounds really good.

  8. Good afternoon Kay, as always your posts are great, informative and interesting. Writing my Apache Warrior series, I became familiar with signals and signs as well. Just put up on Amazon’s Kindle, the 4th and last in that series called APCHE LOVER. Have you ever done a story about Apaches?

  9. Karen, what a fascinating post. I never thought about it that way before, but you’re right: The American Indians were the first “wireless” communicators. There really is nothing new under the sun.


  10. Great blog Karen. A clever play of words on the title too. 🙂 I’ve often wondered if Indian sign language had any part in the sign language used for the deaf.

  11. Enojyed your blog today. I would really enjoy reading your book. I love stories about the Old West and Native Americans.

  12. Thanks so much for the post! I love how there is so much communication that you don’t have to use words for and they have just as much impact without sound! I cant wait to try the hand signs out!

  13. Hi Carol!

    Your book I bet is a winner! I remember how well I liked your first book. No, I’ve never done a book about the Apache — I always meant to — and I thoroughly enjoyed reading the book, THE WAY OF THE SCOUT — where his mentor is Grandfather — an old Apache scout. Fascinating…

  14. Hi Sharla Rae!

    I hope I spelled your name right. Thanks for the compliments — I don’t know for certain if they used any of the old Indian sign language, but I bet the idea sparked off that form of more recent communication. Speculation — but I bet it did. Good comment. : )

  15. Hi Cori!

    I love that about it, too. When I did that book using sign language, I really had to study it and it was fun to see how it could be used in a book. : )

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