Signals – Fire Arrows & Dust Signals – Sign Language
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“Travelers on the prairie have often seen the Indians throwing up signal lights at night, and have wondered how it was done…. They take off the head of the arrow and dip the shaft in gunpowder, mixed with glue…. The gunpowder adheres to the wood, and coats it three or four inches from its end to the depth of one-fourth of an inch. Chewed bark mixed with dry gunpowder is then fastened to the stick, and the arrow is ready for use. When it is to be fired, a warrior places it on his bowstring and draws his bow ready to let it fly; the point of the arrow is then lowered, another warrior lights the dry bark, and it is shot high in the air. When it has gone up a little distance, it bursts out into a flame, and burns brightly until it falls to the ground. Various meanings are attached to these fire-arrow signals. Thus, one arrow meant, among the Santees, ‘The enemy are about’; two arrows from the same point, ‘Danger’; three, ‘Great danger’; many, ‘They are too strong, or we are falling back’; two arrows sent up at the same moment, ‘We will attack’; three, ‘Soon’; four, ‘Now’; if shot diagonally, ‘In that direction.’ These signals are constantly changed, and are always agreed upon when the party goes out or before it separates. The Indians send their signals very intelligently, and seldom make mistakes in telegraphing each other by these silent monitors. The amount of information they can communicate by fires and burning arrows is perfectly wonderful. Every war party carries with it bundles of signal arrows.” (Belden, The White Chief; or Twelve Years among the Wild Indians of the Plains. Cincinnati and New York, 1871, pp. 106, 107.)
With regard to the above, it is possible that white influence has been felt in the mode of signaling as well as in the use of gunpowder, but it would be interesting to learn if any Indians adopted a similar expedient before gunpowder was known to them. They frequently used arrows, to which flaming material was attached, to set fire to the wooden houses of the early colonists. The Caribs were acquainted with this same mode of destruction as appears by the following quotation:
“Their arrows were commonly poisoned, except when they made their military excursions by night; on these occasions they converted them into instruments of still greater mischief; for, by arming the points with pledgets of cotton dipped in oil, and set on fire, they fired whole villages of their enemies at a distance.” (Alcedo. The Geograph. and Hist. Dict. of America and the West Indies. Thompson’s trans. London, 1812, Vol. I, p. 314.)
When an enemy, game, or anything else which was the special object of search is discovered, handfulls of dust are thrown into the air to announce that discovery. This signal has the same general signification as when riding to and fro, or, round in a circle on an elevated portion of ground, or a bluff. (Dakota VII, VII.)
When any game or any enemy is discovered, and should the sentinel be without a blanket, he throws a handful of dust up into the air. When the Brulés attacked the Ponkas, in 1872, they stood on the bluff and threw up dust. (Omaha I; Ponka I.)
There appears to be among the Bushmen a custom of throwing up sand or earth into the air when at a distance from home and in need of help of some kind from those who were there. (Miss L.C. Lloyd, MS. Letter, dated July 10, 1880, from Charlton House, Mowbray, near Cape Town, Africa.)