Narratives – Nátci’s – Sign Language

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The following, which is presented as a good descriptive model, was obtained by Dr. W.J. Hoffman, of the Bureau of Ethnology, from Natci, a Pai-Ute chief connected with the delegation of that tribe to Washington in January, 1880, and refers to an expedition made by him by direction of his father, Winnimukka, Head Chief of the Pai-Utes, to the northern camp of his tribe, partly for the purpose of preventing the hostile outbreak of the Banaks which occurred in 1878, and more particularly to prevent those Pai-Utes from being drawn into any difficulty with the United States by being leagued with the Banaks.

Nátci’s Narrative

(1) Close the right hand, leaving the index extended, pointed westward at arm’s length a little above the horizon, head thrown back with the eyes partly closed and following the direction – —Away to the west, (2) indicate a large circle on the ground with the forefinger of the right hand pointing downward – —place (locative), (3) the tips of the spread fingers of both hands placed against one another, pointing upward before the body, leaving a space of four or five inches between the wrists— – house (brush tent or wik’-i-up), see Fig. 257, p. 431, (4) with the right hand closed, index extended or slightly bent, tap the breast several times— – mine. (5) Draw an imaginary line, with the right index toward the ground, from some distance in front of the body to a position nearer to it— – from there I came, (6) indicate a spot on the ground by quickly raising and depressing the right hand with the index pointing downward – —to a stopping place, (7) grasp the forelock with the right hand, palm to the forehead, and raise it about six inches, still holding the hair upward— – the chief of the tribe (Winnimukka), see Fig. 245, p. 418, (8) touch the breast with the index – —me, (9) the right hand held forward from the hip at the level of the elbow, closed, palm downward, with the middle finger extended and quickly moved up and down a short distance – —telegraphed, (10) head inclined toward the right, at the same time making movement toward and from the ear with the extended index pointing toward it – —I heard, i.e., understood.

(11) An imaginary line indicated with the extended and inverted index from a short distance before the body to a place on the right— – I went, (12) repeat gesture No. 6— – a stopping place, (13) inclining the head, with eyes closed, toward the right, bring the extended right hand, palm up, to within six inches of the right ear— – where I slept. (14) Place the spread and extended index and thumb of the right hand, palm downward, across the right side of the forehead— – white man (American), (15) elevating both hands before the breast, palms forward, thumbs touching, the little finger of the right hand closed – —nine, (16) touch the breast with the right forefinger suddenly – —and myself, (17) lowering the hand, and pointing downward and forward with the index still extended (the remaining fingers and thumb being loosely closed) indicate an imaginary line along the ground toward the extreme right— – went, (18) extend the forefinger of the closed left hand, and place the separated fore and second fingers of the right astraddle the forefinger of the left, and make a series of arched or curved movements toward the right— – rode horseback, (19) keeping the hands in their relative position, place them a short distance below the right ear, the head being inclined toward that side— – sleep, (20) repeat the signs for riding (No. 18) and sleeping (No. 19) three times – —four days and nights, (21) make sign No. 18, and stopping suddenly point toward the east with the extended index-finger of the right (others being closed) and follow the course of the sun until it reaches the zenith— – arrived at noon of the fifth day.

(22) Indicate a circle as in No. 2— – a camp, (23) the hands then placed together as in No. 3, and in this position, both moved in short irregular upward and downward jerks from side to side— – many wik’-i-ups, (24) then indicate the chief of the tribe as in No. 7— meaning – that it was one of the camps of the chief of the tribe. (25) Make a peculiar whistling sound of “phew” and draw the extended index of the right hand across the throat from left to right— – Banak, (26) draw an imaginary line with the same extended index, pointing toward the ground, from the right to the body – came from the north, (27) again make gesture No. 2— – camp, (28) and follow it twice by sign given as No. 18 (forward from the body, but a short distance)— – two rode. (29) Rub the back of the right hand with the extended index of the left— – Indian, i.e., the narrator’s own tribe, Pai-Ute, (30) elevate both hands side by side before the breast, palms forward, thumbs touching, then, after a short pause, close all the fingers and thumbs except the two outer fingers of the right hand— – twelve, (31) again place the hands side by side with fingers all spread or separated, and move them in a horizontal curve toward the right— – went out of camp, (32) and make the sign given as No. 25— – Banak, (33) that of No. 2— – camp, (34) then join the hands as in No. 31, from the right toward the front— – Pai-Utes returned, (35) close the right hand, leaving the index only extended, move it forward and downward from the mouth three or four times, pointing forward, each time ending the movement at a different point – —I talked to them, (36) both hands pointing upward, fingers and thumbs separated, palms facing and about four inches apart, held in front of the body as far as possible in that position—the men in council, (37) point toward the east with the index apparently curving downward over the horizon, then gradually elevate it to an altitude of 45°— – talked all night and until nine o’clock next morning, (38) bring the closed hands, with forefingers extended, upward and forward from their respective sides, and place them side by side, palms forward, in front – —my brother, Fig. 317, (39) (see also pp. 385, 386) followed by the gesture, No. 18, directed toward the left and front— – rode, (40) by No. 7— – the head chief, (41) and No. 2— – camp.

Fig. 317
Fig. 317

(42) Continue by placing the hands, slightly curved, palm to palm, holding them about six inches below the right ear, the head being inclined considerably in that direction – —one sleep (night), (43) make sign No. 14— – white man, (44) raise the left hand to the level of the elbow forward from the left hip, fingers pointing upward, thumb and forefinger closed— – three, (45) and in this position draw them toward the body and slightly to the right— – came, (46) then make gesture So. 42 – —sleep; (47) point with the right index to the eastern horizon— – in the morning, (48) make sign No. 14— – white man, (49) hold the left hand nearly at arm’s length before the body, back up, thumb and forefinger closed, the remaining fingers pointing downward— – three, (50) with the right index finger make gesture No. 35, the movement being directed towards the left hand— – talked to them, (51) motion along the ground with the left hand, from the body toward the left and front, retaining the position of the fingers just stated (in No. 49)— – they went, (52) tap toward the ground, as in gesture No. 6, with the left hand nearly at arm’s length – —to their camp.

(53) Make gesture No. 18 toward the front – —I rode, (54) extend the right hand to the left and front, and tap towards the earth several times as in sign No. 6, having the fingers and thumb collected to a point— – camp of the white men. (55) Close both hands, with the forefingers of each partly extended and crooked, and place one on either side of the forehead, palms forward— – cattle (a steer), (56) hold the left hand loosely extended, back forward, about twenty inches before the breast, and strike the back of the partly extended right hand into the left— – shot, (57) make a short upward curved movement with both hands, their position unchanged, over and downward toward the right— – fell over, killed, (58) then hold the left hand a short distance before the body at the height of the elbow, palm downward, fingers closed, with the thumb lying over the second joint of the forefinger, extend the flattened right hand, edge down, before the body, just by the knuckles of the left, and draw the hand towards the body, repeating the movement— – skinned, (59) make the sign given in No. 25— – Banak, (60) place both hands with spread fingers upward and palms forward, thumb to thumb, before the right shoulder, moving them with a tremulous motion toward the left and front—came in, (61) make three short movements toward the ground in front, with the left hand, fingers loosely curved, and pointing downward— – camp of the three white men, (62) then with the right hand open and flattened, edge down, cut towards the body as well as to the right and left – —cut up the meat, (63) and make the pantomimic gesture of handing it around to the visitors.

(64) Make sign No. 35, the movement being directed to the left hand, as held in No. 49 – —told the white men, (65) grasping the hair on the right side of the head with the left hand, and drawing the extended right hand with the edge towards and across the side of the head from behind forward – to scalp; (66) close the right hand, leaving the index partly extended, and wave it several times quickly from side to side a short distance before the face, slightly shaking the head at the same time – —no, Fig. 318, (67) make gesture No. 4— – me, (68) repeat No. 65 – —scalp, (69) and raising the forelock high with the left hand, straighten the whole frame with a triumphant air – —make me a great chief. (70) Close the right hand with the index fully extended, place the tip to the mouth and direct it firmly forward and downward toward the ground— – stop, (71) then placing the hands, pointing upward, side by side, thumbs touching, and all the fingers separated, move them from near the breast outward toward the right, palms facing that direction at termination of movement – —the Banaks went to one side, (72) with the right hand closed, index curved, palm downward, point toward the western horizon, and at arm’s length dip the finger downward— – after sunset, (73) make the gesture given as No. 14— – white men, (74) pointing to the heart as in No. 4— – and I, (75) conclude by making gesture No. 18 from near body toward the left, four times, at the end of each movement the hands remaining in the same position, thrown slightly upward— – we four escaped on horseback.

Fig. 318
Fig. 318

The above was paraphrased orally by the narrator as follows: “Hearing of the trouble in the north, I started eastward from my camp in Western Nevada, when, upon arriving at Winnemucca Station, I received telegraphic orders from the head chief to go north to induce our bands in that region to escape the approaching difficulties with the Banaks. I started for Camp McDermit, where I remained one night. Leaving next morning in company with nine others, we rode on for four days and a half. Soon after our arrival at the Pai-Ute camp, two Banaks came in, when I sent twelve Pai-Utes to their camp to ask them all to come in to hold council. These messengers soon returned, when I collected all the Pai-Utes ands talked to them all night regarding the dangers of an alliance with the Banaks and of their continuance in that locality. Next morning I sent my brother to the chief, Winnimukka, with a report of proceedings.”

On the following day three white men rode into camp, who had come up to aid in persuading the Pai-Utes to move away from the border. Next morning I consulted with them respecting future operations, after which they went away a short distance to their camp. I then followed them, where I shot and killed a steer, and while skinning it the Banaks came in, when the meat was distributed. The Banaks being disposed to become violent at any moment, the white men became alarmed, when I told them that rather than allow them to be scalped I would be scalped myself in defending them, for which action I would be considered as great a chief as Winnemukka by my people. When I told the Banaks to cease threatening the white men they all moved to one side a short distance to hold a war council, and after the sun went down the white men and I mounted our horses and fled toward the south, whence we came.”

Some of the above signs seem to require explanation. Natci was facing the west during the whole of this narration, and by the right he signified the north; this will explain the significance of his gesture to the right in Nos. 11 and 17, and to the left in No. 75.

No. 2 (repeated in Nos. 22,27,33, and 41) designates an Indian brush lodge, and although Natci has not occupied one for some years, the gesture illustrates the original conception in the round form of the foundation of poles, branches, and brush, the interlacing of which in the construction of the wik’-i-up has survived in gestures Nos. 3 and 23 (the latter referring to more than one, i.e., an encampment).

The sign for Banak, No. 25 (also 32 and 59), has its origin from the tradition among the Pai-Utes that the Banaks were in the habit of cutting the throats of their victims. This sign is made with the index instead of the similar gesture with the flat hand, which among several tribes denotes the Sioux, but the Pai-Utes examined had no specific sign for that body of Indians, not having been in sufficient contact with them.

“A stopping place,” referred to in Nos. 6, 12, 52, and 54, represents the temporary station, or camp of white men, and is contradistinguished from a village, or perhaps from any permanent encampment of a number of persons, by merely dotting toward the ground instead of indicating a circle.

It will also be seen that in several instances, after indicating the nationality, the fingers previously used in representing the number were repeated without its previously accompanying specific gesture, as in No. 61, where the three fingers of the left hand represented the men (white), and the three movements toward the ground signified the camp or tents of the three (white) men.

This also occurs in the gesture (Nos. 59, 60, and 71) employed for the Banaks, which, having been once specified, is used subsequently without its specific preceding sign for the tribe represented.

The rapid connection of the signs Nos. 57 and 58 and of Nos. 74 and 75 indicates the conjunction, so that they are severally readily understood as “shot and killed,” and “the white men and I.” The same remark applies to Nos. 15 and 16, “the nine and I.”



MLA Source Citation:

Sign Language Among North American Indians Compared with that Among Other Peoples and Deaf-Mutes. 1881 AccessGenealogy.com. Web. 18 December 2014. http://www.accessgenealogy.com/native/narratives-natcis-sign-language.htm - Last updated on Jan 5th, 2014


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