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Once Probably Universal in North America – Sign Language

The conclusion reached from the researches made is to the effect that before the changes wrought by the Columbian discovery the use of gesture illustrated the remark of Quintilian upon the same subject (l. xi, c. 3) that “In tanta per omnes gentes nationesque linguæ diversitate hic mihi omnium hominum communis sermo videatur.

Quotations may be taken from some old authorities referring to widely separated regions. The Indians of Tampa Bay, identified with the Timucua, met by Cabeça de Vaca in 1528, were active in the use of signs, and in his journeying for eight subsequent years, probably through Texas and Mexico, he remarks that he passed through many dissimilar tongues, but that he questioned and received the answers of the Indians by signs “just as if they spoke our language and we theirs.” Michaëlius, writing in 1628, says of the Algonkins on or near the Hudson River: “For purposes of trading as much was done by signs with the thumb and fingers as by speaking.” In Bossu’s Travels through that part of North America formerly called Louisiana, London, 1771 (Forster’s translation), an account is given of Monsieur de Belle-Isle some years previously captured by the Atak-apa, who remained with them two years and “conversed in their pantomimes with them.” He was rescued by Governor Bienville and was sufficiently expert in the sign language to interpret between Bienville and the tribe. In Bushmann’s Spuren, p. 424, there is a reference to the “Accocessaws on the west side of the Colorado, two hundred miles southwest of Nacogdoches,” who use thumb signs which they understand: “Theilen sich aber auch durch Daum-Zeichen mit, die sie alle verstehen.

Omitting many authorities, and for brevity allowing a break in the continuity of time, reference may be made to the statement in Major Long’s expedition of 1819, concerning the Arapahos, Kaiowas, Ietans, and Cheyennes, to the effect that, being ignorant of each other’s languages, many of them when they met would communicate by means of signs, and would thus maintain a conversation without the least difficulty or interruption. A list of the tribes reported upon by Prince Maximilian von Wied-Neuweid, in 1832-’34, appears elsewhere in this paper. In Frémont’s expedition of 1844 special and repeated allusion is made to the expertness of the Pai-Utes in signs, which is contradictory to the statement above made by correspondents. The same is mentioned regarding a band of Shoshonis met near the summit of the Sierra Nevada, and one of “Diggers,” probably Chemehuevas, encountered on a tributary of the Rio Virgen.

Ruxton, in his Adventures in Mexico and the Rocky Mountains, New York, 1848, p. 278, sums up his experience with regard to the Western tribes so well as to require quotation: “The language of signs is so perfectly understood in the Western country, and the Indians themselves are such admirable pantomimists, that, after a little use, no difficulty whatever exists in carrying on a conversation by such a channel; and there are few mountain men who are at a loss in thoroughly understanding and making themselves intelligible by signs alone, although they neither speak nor understand a word of the Indian tongue.”

Passing to the correspondents of the writer from remote parts of North America, it is important to notice that Mr. J.W. Powell, Indian superintendent, reports the use of sign language among the Kutine, and Mr. James Lenihan, Indian agent, among the Selish, both tribes of British Columbia. The Very Rev. Edward Jacker, while contributing information upon the present use of gesture language among the Ojibwas of Lake Superior, mentions that it has fallen into comparative neglect because for three generations they had not been in contact with tribes of a different speech. Dr. Francis H. Atkins, acting assistant surgeon, United States Army, in forwarding a contribution of signs of the Mescalero Apaches remarks: “I think it probable that they have used sign language rather less than many other Indians. They do not seem to use it to any extent at home, and abroad the only tribes they were likely to come into contact with were the Navajos, the Lipans of old Mexico, and the Comanches. Probably the last have been almost alone their visiting neighbors. They have also seen the Pueblos a little, these appearing to be, like the Phœnicians of old, the traders of this region.” He also alludes to the effect of the Spanish, or rather lingua Mexicana, upon all the Southern tribes and, indeed, upon those as far north as the Utes, by which recourse to signs is now rendered less necessary.

Before leaving this particular topic it is proper to admit that, while there is not only recorded testimony to the past use of gesture signs by several tribes of the Iroquoian and Algonkian families, but evidence that it still remains, it is, however, noticeable that these families when met by their first visitors do not appear to have often impressed the latter with their reliance upon gesture language to the same extent as has always been reported of the tribes now and formerly found farther inland. An explanation may be suggested from the fact that among those families there were more people dwelling near together in communities speaking the same language, though with dialectic peculiarities, than became known later in the farther West, and not being nomadic their intercourse with strange tribes was less individual and conversational. Some of the tribes, in especial the Iroquois proper, were in a comparatively advanced social condition. A Mohawk or Seneca would probably have repeated the arrogance of the old Romans, whom in other respects they resembled, and compelled persons of inferior tribes to learn his language if they desired to converse with him, instead of resorting to the compromise of gesture speech, which he had practiced before the prowess and policy of the confederated Five Nations had gained supremacy and which was still used for special purposes between the members of his own tribe. The studies thus far pursued lead to the conclusion that at the time of the discovery of North America all its inhabitants practiced sign language, though with different degrees of expertness, and that while under changed circumstances it was disused by some, others, in especial those who after the acquisition of horses became nomads of the Great Plains, retained and cultivated it to the high development now attained, from which it will surely and speedily decay.

MLA Source Citation:

Sign Language Among North American Indians Compared with that Among Other Peoples and Deaf-Mutes. 1881 Web. 8 February 2016.
- Last updated on Jan 5th, 2014

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