Mistaken Denial That Sign Language Exists

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The most useful suggestion to persons interested in the collection of signs is that they shall not too readily abandon the attempt to discover recollections of them even among tribes long exposed to European influence and officially segregated from others. The instances where their existence, at first denied, has been ascertained are important with reference to the theories advanced.

Rev. J. Owen Dorsey has furnished a considerable vocabulary of signs finally procured from the Poncas, although, after residing among them for years, with thorough familiarity with their language, and after special and intelligent exertion to obtain some of their disused gesture language, he had before reported it to be entirely forgotten. A similar report was made by two missionaries among the Ojibwas, though other trustworthy authorities have furnished a copious list of signs obtained from that tribe. This is no imputation against the missionaries, as in October, 1880, five intelligent Ojibwas from Petoskey, Mich., told the writer that they had never heard of gesture language. An interesting letter from Mr. B.O. Williams, sr., of Owasso, Mich., explains the gradual decadence of signs used by the Ojibwas in his recollection, embracing sixty years, as chiefly arising from general acquaintance with the English language. Further discouragement came from an Indian agent giving the decided statement, after four years of intercourse with the Pai-Utes, that no such thing as a communication by signs was known or even remembered by them, which, however, was less difficult to bear because on the day of the receipt of that well-intentioned missive some officers of the Bureau of Ethnology were actually talking in signs with a delegation of that very tribe of Indians then in Washington, from one of whom, Nátci, a narrative printed in this paper (page 500), was received.

The report from missionaries, army officers, and travelers in Alaska was unanimous against the existence of a sign language there until Mr. Ivan Petroff, whose explorations had been more extensive, gave the excellent exposition and dialogue now produced (see page 492). Collections were also obtained from the Apaches and Zuñi, Pimas, Papagos, and Maricopas, after agents and travelers had denied them to be possessed of any knowledge on the subject.

For the reasons mentioned under the last heading, little hope was entertained of procuring a collection from any of the Iroquoian stock, but the intelligent and respectable chief of the Wyandots, Hénto (Gray Eyes), came to the rescue. His tribe was moved from Ohio in July, 1843, to the territory now occupied by the State of Kansas, and then again moved to Indian Territory, in 1870. He asserts that about one-third of the tribe, the older portion, know many signs, a partial list of which he gave with their descriptions. He was sure that those signs were used before the removal from Ohio, and he saw them used also by Shawnees, Delawares, and Senecas there.

Unanimous denial of any existence of sign language came from the British provinces of Ontario and Quebec, and was followed by the collection obtained by the Hon. Horatio Hale. His statement of the time and manner of its being procured by him is not only interesting but highly instructive:

“The aged Mohawk chief, from whom the information on this subject has been obtained, is commonly known by his English name of John Smoke Johnson. ‘Smoke’ is a rude version of his Indian name, Sakayenkwaraton, which may be rendered ‘Disappearing Mist.’ It is the term applied to the haze which rises in the morning of an autumn day, and gradually passes away. Chief Johnson has been for many years ‘speaker’ of the great council of the Six Nations. In former times he was noted as a warrior, and later has been esteemed one of the most eloquent orators of his race. At the age of eighty-eight years he retains much of his original energy. He is considered to have a better knowledge of the traditions and ancient customs of his people than any other person now living. This superior knowledge was strikingly apparent in the course of the investigations which were made respecting the sign language. Two other members of his tribe, well-educated and very intelligent men of middle age, the one a chief and government interpreter, the other a clergyman now settled over a white congregation, had both been consulted on the subject and both expressed the opinion that nothing of the sign language, properly speaking, was known among the Six Nations. They were alike surprised and interested when the old chief, in their presence, after much consideration, gradually drew forth from the stores of his memory the proofs of an accomplishment which had probably lain unused for more than half a century.”

One of the most conclusive instances of the general knowledge of sign language, even when seldom used, was shown in the visit of five Jicarilla Apaches to Washington in April, 1880, under the charge of Dr. Benjamin Thomas, their agent. The latter said he had never heard of any use of signs among them. But it happened that there was a delegation of Absaroka (Crows) at the same hotel, and the two parties from such widely separated regions, not knowing a word of each other’s language, immediately began to converse in signs, resulting in a decided sensation. One of the Crows asked the Apaches whether they ate horses, and it happening that the sign for eating was misapprehended for that known by the Apaches for many, the question was supposed to be whether the latter had many horses, which was answered in the affirmative. Thence ensued a misunderstanding on the subject of hippophagy, which was curious both as showing the general use of signs as a practice and the diversity in special signs for particular meanings. The surprise of the agent at the unsuspected accomplishment of his charges was not unlike that of a hen who, having hatched a number of duck eggs, is perplexed at the instinct with which the brood takes to the water.

The denial of the use of signs is often faithfully though erroneously reported from the distinct statements of Indians to that effect. In that, as in other matters, they are often provokingly reticent about their old habits and traditions. Chief Ouray asserted to the writer, as he also did to Colonel Dodge, that his people, the Utes, had not the practice of sign talk, and had no use for it. This was much in the proud spirit in which an Englishman would have made the same statement, as the idea involved an accusation against the civilization of his people, which he wished to appear highly advanced. Still more frequently the Indians do not distinctly comprehend what is sought to be obtained. Sometimes, also, the art, abandoned in general, only remains in the memories of a few persons influenced by special circumstances or individual fancy.

In this latter regard a comparison may be made with the old science of heraldry, once of practical use and a necessary part of a liberal education, of which hardly a score of persons in the United States have any but the vague knowledge that it once existed; yet the united memories of those persons could, in the absence of records, reproduce all essential points on the subject.

Another cause for the mistaken denial in question must be mentioned. When travelers or sojourners have become acquainted with signs in any one place they may assume that those signs constitute the sign language, and if they afterwards meet tribes not at once recognizing those signs, they remove all difficulty about the theory of a “one and indivisible” sign language by simply asserting that the tribes so met do not understand the sign language, or perhaps that they do not use signs at all. This precise assertion has, as above mentioned, been made regarding the Utes and Apaches. Of course, also, Indians who have not been brought into sufficient contact with certain tribes using different signs, for the actual trial which would probably result in mutual comprehension, tell the travelers the same story. It is the venerable one of “αγλωσσος,” “Njemez,” “barbarian,” and “stammering,” above noted, applied to the hands instead of the tongue. Thus an observer possessed by a restrictive theory will find no signs where they are in plenty, while another determined on the universality and identity of sign language can, as elsewhere explained, produce, from perhaps the same individuals, evidence in his favor from the apparently conclusive result of successful communication.



MLA Source Citation:

Sign Language Among North American Indians Compared with that Among Other Peoples and Deaf-Mutes. 1881 AccessGenealogy.com. Web. 28 November 2014. http://www.accessgenealogy.com/native/mistaken-denial-that-sign-language-exists.htm - Last updated on Jan 5th, 2014


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