See what I’m saying? An Observation on the Study of Indian Sign Language
By Teton Todd Glover #1784
It was the Indian Lore Merit Badge that got me started on sign talking. I already had a deep interest and love for things “Indian”, and as I read the merit badge requirements I thought “Hmmm, doing this sign language one looks fun and challenging and might be a useful skill long after my Scouting days are over.” So, at age thirteen I acquired a copy of Tompkins book and began to study with fascination. When it was time to pass off the requirements at summer camp however, there was no one who knew any sign and they had to borrow my book to test me. I was the only person that the counselors had ever heard of who did the sign language requirement.
Well, interesting though it was it quickly became apparent that it wouldn’t be to useful if no one else I knew shared the skill and since the teenage years had just began, the book was shelved along with my very rudimentary skills. So, there was a sense of deja vu as I began the process of becoming a member of the AMM and studying sign again. The thin volume of Tompkins finally ended its long lonely vigil of some 27 years on the top shelf, and I again began the study with eagerness. I could recall only three signs from those earlier years, “Hungry” which I had often signed to my Mother and “Come, Eat” with which she replied. It was a joy to meet brothers who shared an enthusiasm for learning the skill and had the devotion to stay with it and attempt to make it a useful part of their bag of wilderness skills. I was immediately impressed by the depth of knowledge many possessed and I became highly motivated.
My new approach began with the systematic learning of the basic 200 words recommended by Tompkins. By the time that was accomplished I was tired of toting Tompkins book around with me and so I began copying pages from the book, cutting out the individual signs and pasting them to 50 count sets of spiral bound index cards. I became obsessed with this and will confess to having spent quite a few hours at work engrossed in this project. After having produced 8 fifty card decks my obsession finally wore thin.
A friend and co-worker at the time noticed my intense interest, and himself became involved. We set up a regimen of meeting daily for 15 minutes and reviewing the flash cards. It became a contest to see who could learn the most the fastest. During the course of doing this, I attended several AMM events where sign classes were given or where several of us practiced. Between my own daily sessions with my buddy and the AMM camps I began to notice a few problems. One was that each of us did certain signs slightly differently from each other and everyone assumed their way was correct.
When these instances arose, I would turn back to Tompkins and discover that either I hadn’t read the explanation closely enough or someone else hadn’t.
Another common problem I observed were folks who having spent some time studying the subject began to speak and teach with an air of definitiveness. Many examples were shown of how to give a proper sign along with commentary on the origin of the sign. These often seemed to make sense on the surface, but I wondered “Where did they get that information?” Part of the explanation was that Tomkins was not the only source being used. I was introduced to Clark’s book and a whole new deep sea of sign knowledge. I poured through the pages of this new book often stopping to compare the signs with Tomkins work. Fortunately, I found more agreements than disparity, but enough differences existed to cause some confusion. I determined that it was best to stick with Tomkins as the basis which coincidentally is the only reference cited in the AMM’s governing codes. Since then I have had the pleasure of attending a couple of my good friend Gene Hickman’s sign classes at rendezvous’. He does an exceptional job of introducing the art and his years of study are apparent. Again, through Gene I was introduced to other sources of sign knowledge.
One source I found very interesting yet frustrating is a video tape of a conference of tribal representatives done in the early part of the last century. I thought “what could be better? A visual confirmation from actual Indians!” Those of you who have had a chance to see the video will understand my disappointment. I didn’t recognize a single sign the first time through. After several more viewings with a lot of rewinding I began to pick out a few, but eventually gave up on it as a source of significance.
Over the last few years I have continued to attempt to learn more sign, but my workable knowledge waxes and wanes according to my diligence of study. I have picked up a number of new resources along the way and the balance of this article will be devoted to sharing those with you.
I will state up front that this will not be anything like an exhaustive analysis of each work. I will simply state my own opinion on each book as to its merits and will include a few comparisons of signs across several of the works. Perhaps in the future I will endeavor to do a more in-depth comparison of a larger number of signs, unless one of you has more energy and gets to it first.
To date I have accumulated nine different books devoted to Indian Sign Talk, each has it good points. Some are obviously much better than others. I will mention them in no particular order, only that in which they are heaped here on the desk beside me.
Tomkins, William, Indian Sign Language. New York: Dover Publications, 1969.
If I could only have one sign book, this would be it for me. I consider this book the “New Testament” of sign books. Tomkins apparently had access to several older works on sign and spent many years in practical research among members of several Northern Plains tribes during the twilight years of the 19th century. I have occasionally heard mention that Tomkins “cleaned up” some of the signs in his book to make it more suitable for use by the Boy Scout of America. Some have even gone as far as to claim that this book was written specifically for the BSA. I believe this is false. Clearly Tomkins wrote his book, originally entitled “Universal Indian Sign language of the Plains Indians of North America,” completely independent of the BSA and afterward recommended it to the Scouting organization thinking it may be useful to them.
I know of several people who have bought this book and flipped right to page ten and began memorizing. They missed a wealth of info in the first nine pages. Be sure to read all the book, there are many interesting and entertaining inclusions. Simple illustrations are used which can be confusing to follow if you don’t pay strict attention to the written description. This book is widely available and very inexpensive. 106 pages.
Clark, William Philo, The Indian Sign Language. Lincoln and London: University of Nebraska Press. 1885, 1982.
This is one of the “Old Testaments” which Tomkins had access to in doing his book. This work has a wealth of information besides simply describing signs. It makes a fascinating read as you thumb through the signs. There are no illustrations which is somewhat of a weakness, but this is a must have in your sign library. Widely available,
Reasonably priced. 443 Pages.
Amon, Aline. Talking Hands, How to Use Indian Sign Language. New York: Doubleday & Company, 1968.
Written for a very juvenile audience, it would be a good primer for children or younger scouts. It has simple illustrations. It does help develop sentence building.
I’d pass on this one. 80 Pages.
Mallery, Garrick. Sign Language Among North American Indians. New York: Dover Publications, 2001.
Another “Old Testament” used by Tomkins. Originally published in 1881 it was unavailable for years and fortunately recently re-released. Almost an overwhelming amount of information, there is hours of interesting reading here. It also contains a list of other original works on Indian Sign which have become next to impossible to find. I’d highly recommend this book if you are seriously interested in learning Indian Sign. It has great full torso illustrations, is easy to find and inexpensive. Buy it. 552 pages.
Liptak, Karen. North American Indian Sign Language. New York: Scholastic Inc., 1990.
Another aimed at the younger crowd. Has some good illustrations of signs, good logical approach to learning. Easily available, and cheap. A mild recommendation. 64 pages.
Seton, Ernest Thompson. Sign Talk of the Cheyenne Indians and Other Cultures.
New York: Dover Publications, 1918, 2000.
An excellent work which I highly recommend. Put together in a dictionary like format with many small illustrations. Many of the illustrations show the hands in reference to the body, which is helpful. This work was compiled in the early 1900’s with the help of an expert of Cheyenne sign talk along with contributions from Sioux and Blackfeet tribesmen. Good Availability and cheap. 233 pages.
Hofsinde, Robert. Indian Sign Language. New York: William Morrow & Co., 1956.
A nice little book to have, but it makes no further contributions to the standard works already listed. It does have some good illustrations showing facial expressions along with the hand signs. I recommend it if you can find a reasonably priced copy.
Not to readily available, don’t pay much for it. 96 Pages.
Farnell, Brenda. Do You See What I Mean? Plains Indian Sign Talk and the Embodiment of Action. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1995.
Wow, what can I say about this one? It is not very helpful for the beginner in learning sign. It was done as a thesis and is definitely aimed at the academician. However, it does contain some fascinating reading if you can concentrate long enough to decipher the meaning. Let me illustrate by quoting from the preface a bit. “In the pages that follow, I approach the Cartesian bifurcation of the person into mind and body as a dancer-turned-anthropologist who finds herself caught in the late-twentieth-century academic borderland between science and art. In this thought world that is dominated by words and the new hegemony of “text,” I try to locate a theoretical space for a semiotics of the moving person, that is, for the embodiment of language and social action.”I kind of lost hope of learning much sign right there. Now, for those of you who are really into sign like Gene Hickman, you might want to consider this one. Readily available, reasonable cost. 382 pages.
Fronval, George and Daniel DuBois, Indian Signs and Signals. New York: Wings Books, 1978.
Full Color illustrations and photos make this book very visually appealing. Again this one doesn’t add much to the others listed above, but it does contain some interesting things on exploit markings, war paint etc. A mild recommendation. Available, moderate cost. 81 pages. I know of some other works that I have yet to collect, but these are probably more than I will ever fully digest. My main purpose in getting this many different sources was to try to come to a consensus on some of the signs that are often confused and locate words that were left out of my earliest collected works. I suspect that some of the later written books drew heavily from the earlier ones. During the AMM rendezvous this past July, I had the pleasure of working with a couple brothers as they attempted to pass off their sign language requirement. Our discussion and gestures attracted several other brothers and a good conversation followed. After we discussed and debated several ways to do signs and looked up many that we disagreed on, it became even more clear to me that a standard must be adhered to if we ever hope to be able to understand each other.
Few if any of us will ever progress to the point of complete fluency in sign talk. It is likely that none of us will ever use the knowledge to converse with our Native American friends, so the utility of knowing many different ways of giving the same sign is negligible. We will probably only use sign talk with fellow AMM brothers. Having made a close study of all the above books, I advocate using Tomkins book as a logical basis, augmented by the others where Tomkins fails to give us a sign.
When attempting to converse with brothers in sign talk, may I suggest the following. Slow down, don’t try to impress with rapid gestures. Let the listener (reader?) have time to interpret each sign. Quoting from Tomkins, “The beauty of Sign talk depends upon the manner of making gestures. Movements should not be angular or jerky, but should rather be rounded and sweeping in their rendition. It is inspiring and a thing of beauty to witness a sign conversation between two capable Indian Sign talkers.”
The best advise in regard to Sign talk I think is this, do it. Practice every time you camp with brothers and brush up on your own.
Here is a good link for you computer literate types to use: http://www.inquiry.net/outdoor/native/sign/sign.htm
Until we share a trail or a warming fire. Happy Trails!