The Plains people did not have a written language
of words and letters. They used pictures and symbols. Although they had
a spoken language, when the early European explorers entered the plains
area, they created a sign language. At one time, there were over 3000
different signs. Each had a meaning.
Plains people wrote on rocks, cave walls, and on scraps of buffalo hide.
These pictographs told stories of their battles, heroes, and daily life.
They also acted as warnings. There is a story about a Plains family who
saw a picture sign by the side of a creek. This picture clearly told of
an enemy camp just ahead. The family could tell that the writing was
recent. There had been little wear to the message, and the weather had
been wet. They quickly turned and took another route.
Smoke Signals: Smoke
signals were another form of communication. The plains are flat. You
could see a smoke signal for miles. By changing the puffs of smoke from
short to long, they could send a message. Sometimes the message was one
of warning. Some were simple messages like, "Come on home. It's
time for supper!"
Fire Signals: Fire
signals were used at night. These were motion signals made by running in
front a fire, or running around it. Indian scouts could read these
messages easily. One of the uses for fire signals was to tell other
tribes of danger. Running around the fire meant "go away, get out
Blanket Signals: Warriors
used blankets to communicate to someone who could see them, but might
not hear them. A wildly waving blanket told of danger. It gave the tribe
a few precious extra minutes to get ready for an attack.
Mirror Signs: The
Plains people did not invent the mirror. The white man brought the
mirror with him. The Plains people put mirrors to good use. They traded
for them with traders who might have thought the Plains people
wanted to see themselves in a mirror. Not even close. They wanted
mirrors to use to send signals in the daytime - signals that could
be seen for miles - streaks of reflected sunlight, which could be
read as easily as puffs of smoke. The mirror was instantly portable.
They could send a signal on horseback, and be miles away in no time.
Sign Language: Not
all the Plains people spoke the same language. To communicate with other
tribes, they developed a sign language, a language of hand movements.
Over time, the same signs were used all over the Plains area. Usually,
each band had at least one sign talker. The "talkers"
understood over 3000 different signs. Some of the "talkers"
could sign faster than you could speak. When Europeans first started
entering the Plains region, various tribes communicated with these early
explorers using sign language.
Your Own Pictographs
Lakota - Winter Counts
Presentations in PowerPoint format
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