The Parley, Frederic Remington, 1903.
The Parley, Frederic Remington, 1903.

This entry is related to the tracking series that was featured previously. I found information about common signs and signals used by Native Americans in the same resource: “Mountain Scouting – A Hand-Book for Officers and Soldiers on the Frontiers” by Edward S. Farrow, 1881. Although Farrow paints with some broad strokes, the information is interesting when taken in the context of the times.


From “Mountain Scouting – A Hand-Book for Officers and Soldiers on the Frontiers” by Edward S. Farrow, 1881.

All the Indians understand the sign language, consisting of some words of French and Spanish extraction, a few English words, such as ‘how’ (how do) and ‘by’ (good-bye), and a complete pantomimic vocabulary.

It is a custom with most Indians to run their ponies when approaching either friends or enemies, and unless their status is known they should be halted in due time. This is done by raising the right hand back, to the rear, and waving it forward and backward.

‘Who are you?’ is signalled by waving the right hand to the right and left several times in quick succession; ‘We are friends,’ by raising both hands and grasping the left with the right, as in shaking hands; ‘We are enemies,’ by closing the right hand and placing it against the forehead, or by waving a blanket (usually red) in the air. To say by signs ‘that after a certain journey a good camp will be found, and that game may be found along the road,’ first indicate the course of the sun, from its rising to the point at which it will appear on reaching the camp; then straddle one finger of the left hand with two fingers of the right, trotting them in imitation of the motions of pony and rider; then act as though halting, dismounting and firing; then remount and proceed on the way; finally stop, bow the head, rest it on the hand and close eyes in imitation of sleep.

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To intimate that ‘such a one is dead,’ place one hand over the other and then quickly slip it beneath (gone under); that ‘such ones are husband and wife,’ point to each and place the forefingers in contact throughout (meaning one); that ‘such ones are brothers and sisters,’ point to each and place two fingers in the mouth (meaning nourished at the same breast); that ‘such ones are good friends,’ point them out and fold the arms over the breast, etc.

The various tribes are indicated by making the representation of some totem peculiar to each.

The Comanches, or ‘Snakes,’ by a gliding motion, like a crawling snake.

The Crows by imitating the flapping of wings.

The Sioux, or ‘Cut-throats,’ by drawing the hand across the throat.

The Kiowas, or ‘Prairie Men,’ by imitating the drinking of water.

The Pawnees, or ‘Wolves,’ by placing the hands at the sides of the head, like the ears of a wolf.

The Arapahoes, or ‘Smellers,’ by laying hold of the nose.

The Utes, or ‘Dwellers Among the Mountain Tops,’ by pointing upward.

The Cheyennes, or ‘Cut Arms,’ by drawing the hand across the arm.

The Indians have a system of signaling by means of smokes during the day, and fires at night. The color (light or heavy, the volume (thin or dense), and the varying brilliancy of flame are all significant signals. Every tribe jealously guards the secrets of its code of signals.

Smokes may be raised several hundred feet in a vertical column by making a fire without much blaze and piling on green boughs, grass and weeds. By confining the smoke and permitting it to escape at intervals, puffs may be sent up at will

Owing to the very clear mountain air, the elevated ‘buttes’ and mountain ridges may be seen at a great distance, and may serve the purpose of signal stations.

The Indian alphabet is very similar to ours, being made up of long and short lines. By spreading a blanket over the column of smoke and quickly displacing it, the length or shortness of the columns, as well as their frequency, may be regulated.

This system of telegraphing, so successfully pursued by the Indians when separated and preparing for a flight or defense, might be used to good advantage by co-operating columns of troops, the commanding officers having previously fixed upon some simple system of smoke signals, such as the combination of the numbers of smokes and the intervals (in time) between them.