WIRELESS COM, North American Indian Style


And a Happy Tuesday to you!  I’ll be giving away a free ebook — or mass market copy of one of my books if you don’t yet have an e-reader — to some lucky blogger today.  All you have to do to enter the drawing is to come on in and leave a comment.

So…today I thought we’d have a look at various communication systems used by the old-time American Indian.  Some time back, I wrote and email about wireless com — Native American Style.  I believe at that time I gave a brief overview of various methods of wireless com — hundreds of years ago.  Today, I thought I’d continue in that vein.

indians on the hillI think sometimes we in the modern world forget how ingenious were those who went before us.  In our day and age of the internet and so many things at our fingertips, I think we forget that our forerunners had so many ways to stay in communicate at great distances.  Here are a few that could be used when the person you were communicating to wasn’t visible — or at a great distance from you.  Smoke, dust signals and of course, fire and fire arrows.

Here is a quote from Josiah Gregg’s Commerce of the Prairies — vol ii, p. 286:

“The most remarkable (way of communicating) is by raising smokes, by which many important facts are communicated to a considerable distance and made intelligible by the manner, size, number, or repetition of the smokes, which are commonly raised by firing spots of dry grass.”

When needing to send something to be seen as far away as fifty miles, the highest elevation one can get it needed.  The manner of fire or smoke used was important.  Usually one would start a fire and then cover it with green grass or weeds so that a white smoke was formed — this usually would be seen in a vertical column, which could then be used with a code that was well understood by others within the tribe (but not by those who were not part of the tribe).  A blanket would be put over the fire in such a way as to give signals that were either long or short.

north-american-indians-5So this being said, let’s take a look at some of the things that were said by smoke.  These two were used by the Apache:

Alarm — this uses at least 3 columns — or more — all at once — this shows that there is danger afoot.

Attention — this was usually just one column — something else would usually accompany it to tell what it was that needed attention — for instance if a camp was being taken down or set up — or to give warning of an enemy.

Fire arrows were often used on the prairie to communicate.  For instance, amongst the Santee Sioux, one fire arrow meant that the enemy was about — two arrows meant danger and three arrows meant great danger.  Two arrows sent up at the same moment could mean “we will attack,” and an arrow shot in a particular direction if diagonal, would mean that direction.

Now, these meanings often changed — it wouldn’t do to let the enemy know one’s signals and so often a war party would agree on the signals before going out on the prairie.

It was said by others that the Indians could communicate almost anything by use of smoke, fire, fire arrows or dust and that they used their signals intelligently, seldom, if ever, making mistakes — if only because a mistake could mean the safety or not of one’s own party.

assiniboin-indians[1]Of course there was a standard way of communicating tribe to tribe, because all of the American Indian tribes spoke different languages, and that was by way of sign language.  But don’t think that the American Indian was the original inventor of sign language.  Use of gestures to communicate goes way back in history, even Plato making mention of this form of language.  At one time in ancient history, communicating by gestures was part of the education of freemen.

That this form of communication was so well used by the American Indian, however, was unique, if only because whole conversations could be carried on without a single word being said, and the language was so universal on the plains that language formed no barrier whatsoever.

Even in our modern society, there are gestures that are well known and communicate effectively.  That such gestures are commonly grotesque tends to show to me only that our society has degenerated down to such things…shame…

But once, long ago, sign language was common, was well in use and could communicate anything — even the passion of loving and being loved.

Hope you have enjoyed the blog today.  Be sure to leave a comment if you’d like to enter into the drawing.  And please remember to pick up you copy of RED HAWK’S WOMAN, my latest release which has just recently gone on sale.

RedHawksWoman-R -- first drafthttp://www.samhainpublishing.com/book/5168/red-hawks-woman




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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.
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49 thoughts on “WIRELESS COM, North American Indian Style”

  1. This was very interesting Karen.I would love to win one of your books.
    Maxie > mac262(at)me(dot)com <

  2. I did enjoy the blog today thank you. I did know a little about using smoke as a form of communication.

    When we found out that our son had a profound hearing loss, one of the key aspects was to communicate in any way we could. We turned sign language into a positive in so many ways. With my hands I can talk to family members across a crowded room for one.

  3. very interesting post,,I believe they also made figures on stone with colored ink or whatever they used to make the different colors with,,but smoke was the one they used the most thanks,enjoyed reading the post

    • Hi Vickie!

      Yes, and there were many different ways to communicate where the tribe went and that sort of thing — but the distances were important, also, I think. : )

  4. I wonder what they did when the weather didn’t cooperate with sending smoke signals? I guess they sent messengers. Trail markings with stones was also used to communicate directions and danger.

    They are teaching sign language in high school here in Florida.

    I need to use signs sometimes with customers who visit here and don’t speak English. This is getting more common as I do not speak Spanish.

    • Hi Laurie!

      Now, isn’t that interesting? I hadn’t thought of that — but yes, one would have to use some sort of signs nowadays in order to communicate with someone who didn’t speak English.

      Yes, they always had runners, too. Here in the East I don’t think the smoke signals would have had the significance they had out West, if only because there is always so much in the way of one’s view — trees, etc. But if you’ve ever been on the plains, then one can see how it would work there — cause already one can see great distances, which is just now true on the Eastern seaboard.

  5. There are so many ways to communicate. I enjoyed your post. It was quite informative. I did not know all of those things, just some.

  6. Kay,

    Loved your post as always. Sign language is very useful and I learned it when my son was 5 due to hearing loss..


    • Hi Melinda!

      I know a little sign language — enough to say hello and wish someone well. But not enough to carry on a conversation. It would be like learning another language, I think. : )

    • Hi JeanMP!

      Wow, now isn’t that interesting. I would think that would be really something to have in one’s environment — someone who could speak in sign language. Like another language — it really is.

  7. Hi Karen,
    LTNS! Other ways of communicating over long distances would be bird or animal sounds/imitations. I am teaching myself Native American sign language, the Lakota language, and the Cherokee language.
    I’d love to win a print book. 🙂 Thanks. And remember, folks…November is Native American Heritage Month!!

    • Hi Mel K!

      That’s right. This was so much true on the Eastern seaboard and out West also. Lakota and Cherokee. I know a little — only a little Lakota — mostly I rely on dictionaries and tapes to learn the language when I’m writing about it.

      I didn’t know that November if Native American Heritage Month. Nice! Thanks for sharing that info with us.

  8. I loved this post. I hadn’t thought about the cleverness of sending those signals. I’m reminded of our special forces soldiers who often have to use hand signals to communicate, or the many other professions that do this. Thank you for sharing. Fascinating information.

    • Hi Nancy!

      So nice to see you here. Yes, I have to agree with you — the ways of communication are, indeed, clever. I only wish I knew the signals a little better. Thanks for leaving a post.

  9. This actually feeds into a common mistake that is made even today–that lack of information/communication/education means that a person or group lacks intelligence or ability. Quite a few books have included paragraphs concerning the frustration that travelers have about the lack of understanding of a particular language, but it is only fairly recently that it is mentioned that the frustration (or dismissal as unintelligent) would be the same for the other side!

    • Hi!

      How astute! I hadn’t thought of that — but you’re right. What’s interesting to me, also, is that somehow in some way people usually make themselves understood. : )

  10. I loved this fascinating post! There is much to be learned from those who have gone before us! Thank you for the giveaway opportunity.

  11. Smoke I knew about… amazing how people created different ways to communicate… I wonder if I would have been able to memorize what stood for what with the smoke signals… would not want to get something wrong! LOL

    • You know, I probably would’ve worried about the same thing. : ) All I know is in the days past, the young boys learned early to memorize at a glance all within their view and to keep that memory for years, if needed. We rather lack those skills today — but it used to be. : )

  12. Howdy! I really enjoyed your information on Indian Sign language. I live in the Sandhills of Nebraska where you can see forever if you are on a big hill. Lots of wildlife, too! I would love to win a copy of your printed book and am going to read some of your stories! I am writing western romance and am always trying to soak up more! Thank you so very much for sharing your heritage. When my father passed away, his brother told the family that their father and his brother were ‘adopted’ from the Pine Ridge Reservation. Am trying to locate more information on it. It is so very fascinating to say the least! Thanks again!

    • Hi!

      Oh, my gosh! Isn’t that something — about your heritage — so you probably understand, too, how one could send messages at such distances. It’s hard for someone on the East Coast, I think, who hasn’t experienced the vistas of the old west. Ah, how I love the West.

  13. Enjoyed your blog today. I remember seeing old black and white movies where the Indians used smoke signals to warn of the Calvery near by.

    • Hi Jackie!

      Strangely when I was making this post, I was thinking much the same thing — I love those old black and whites. Movies nowadays, in my humble opinion, just don’t measure up to the old ones.

  14. Hi Karen,
    I always enjoy your quotes. I have enjoyed seeing films of the American Indian sending smoke signals and their sign language.Maybe we should have taken hints also on how they governed their people also.

    • Gosh, Emma, your post made me smile. I so agree with you — particularly so the Iroquois Confederation. It was put together, you know, in an attempt to end war forever. I’ve always liked that concept.

  15. Karen, Thanks for another interesting post on the native american way of life. I figured the sign language was more or less standardized since it was used over such a wide area and white trappers and traders used it. I am sure later settlers and military also learned it .
    It is interesting the different ways native peoples developed to communicate. Some used beadwork patterns, some a series of knots, designs in woven fabrics and baskets, in pottery and in carvings, petroglyphs on rocks and paintings on Teepees to mention a few. It would be an interesting topic to study.

  16. Hi Patricia!

    I always find your posts so interesting. We do forget, I think, that those who went before us were, after all, human, and figured out just how to communicate, despite it all. : )

  17. What an interesting post! Sometimes I think I would love to live in the 1800’s but I know I would definitely would miss modern conveniences like my cell phone! !

  18. I was glad for the post. I knew about the smoke signals but not the other forms. I had seen some sign language used but didn’t know it was so universal.

  19. From then to now so much has changed with tech but I still miss the one on one with friends or walking to visit my mom. It’s beautiful to read how we take for granted how much easier now but lost thst face to face. Love this article. Thanks

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