The Indian Sign Language

The Indian Sign Language

The Indian Sign Language

The Indian Sign Language


In 1876 and 1877, Captain W. P. Clark commanded a detachment of Indian scouts- including Pawnees, Shoshones, Arapahoes, Cheyennes, Crows, and Sioux- who conversed in sign language. They made requests, relayed information, and told stories with their hands, communicating in a language indispensable for quick understanding between Indians of different tribes. The scouts patiently taught Clark the sign system, which he patiently recorded in this book.

Originally written in 1884 for use by the United States Army, The Indian Sign Language is far more than a grammar book or curiosity. Clark worked closely with the Indians who taught him the language, and his respect for them and their way of thinking informs every page. Written for future officers in Indian regions, The Indian Sign Language corrects the sentimental and brutal stereotypes of Indians that led to much misunderstanding.

Clark believed that sign language could assist him "to think like the Indians," which he considered essential for a conscientious officer. His book discusses reliably and soberly the facts of plains Indian life as he encountered them in the 1870s and 1880s. Now a classic, The Indian Sign Language is a monument to the desire for understanding between radically different peoples.


It seems proper in submitting this work that a brief account should first be given of the manner in which I acquired a knowledge of the sign language of the Indians, and that I should at least outline some of the opportunities which have been given me for gaining an understanding of race peculiarities, as I think something will thereby be added to the weight of the expressed opinions not only in regard to the language, but to other matters pertaining to our aborigines which I have touched upon.

During the Sioux and Cheyenne war of 1876-7, in November of 1876, I found myself in command of some three hundred friendly enlisted Indian scouts of the Pawnee, Shoshone, Arapahoe, Cheyenne, Crow, and Sioux tribes; six tribes having six different vocal languages. I had, of course, before known of the sign language used by our Indians, but here I was strongly impressed with its value and beauty. On the march, by their camp-fires at night, and in the early gray of morning, just before charging down on a hostile Indian village, I took my first lessons in this language and in Indian tactics. I observed that these Indians, having different vocal languages, had no difficulty in communicating with each other, and held constant intercourse by means of gestures. For the practical benefits which would immediately ensue, I devoted myself to the study of the gesture language and the people. I found that the Indians were wonderfully good and patient instructors, and that the gesture speech was easy to acquire and remember.

The campaign ended. I was ordered to Red Cloud Agency, and remained there and at Spotted Tail Agency for a year, my duties bringing me in close and constant contact and intercourse with the Sioux, Cheyennes, and Arapahoes,--in their camps, at their feasts, festivals, and funerals, and in the field with scouting-parties.

In 1878-9 and 1880, my duties carried me farther to the northwest, and though engaged mostly in field operations during these years, the character of the service was such that I was thrown into intimate relations with the Cheyennes, Sioux, Crows, Bannacks, Assinaboines, Gros Ventres of the Prairie, Mandans, Arickarees, and other tribes in that region, and had almost constant use for my knowledge of gesture speech. I found this of great value, not only in imparting and receiving information, but as a check upon unreliable interpreters.

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