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Sign Language Among North American Indians – Details of Positions of Fingers

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The signs of the Indians appear to consist of motions more often than of positions—a fact enhancing the difficulty both of their description and illustration—and the motions when not designedly abbreviated are generally large, free, and striking, seldom minute. It seems also to be the general rule among Indians as among deaf-mutes that the point of the finger is used to trace outlines and the palm of the hand to describe surfaces. From an examination of the identical signs made to each other for the same object by Indians of the same tribe and band, they appear to make many gestures with little regard to the position of the fingers and to vary in such arrangement from individual taste. Some of the elaborate descriptions, giving with great detail the attitude of the fingers of any particular gesturer and the inches traced by his motions, are of as little necessity as would be, when quoting a written word, a careful reproduction of the flourishes of tailed letters and the thickness of down-strokes in individual chirography. The fingers must be in some position, but that is frequently accidental, not contributing to the general and essential effect. An example may be given in the sign for white man which Medicine Bull, infra, page 491, made by drawing the palmar surface of the extended index across the forehead, and in Lean Wolf’s Complaint, infra, page 526, the same motion is made by the back of the thumb pressed upon the middle joint of the index, fist closed. The execution as well as the conception in both cases was the indication of the line of the hat on the forehead, and the position of the fingers in forming the line is altogether immaterial. There is often also a custom or “fashion” in which not only different tribes, but different persons in the same tribe, gesture the same sign with different degrees of beauty, for there is calligraphy in sign language, though no recognized orthography. It is nevertheless better to describe and illustrate with unnecessary minuteness than to fail in reporting a real distinction. There are, also, in fact, many signs formed by mere positions of the fingers, some of which are abbreviations, but in others the arrangement of the fingers in itself forms a picture. An instance of the latter is one of the signs given for the bear, viz.: Middle and third finger of right hand clasped down by the thumb, fore and little finger extended crooked downward. See Extracts from Dictionary, infra. This reproduction, of the animals peculiar claws, with the hand and in any position relative to the body, would suffice without the pantomime of scratching in the air, which is added only if the sign without it should not be at once comprehended.

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