The Corps of Discovery had not gone far before Lewis and Clark encountered the Arikara and Mandan tribes, in 1803. They had no trouble finding mountain men who knew the native languages and could translate for them. The captains weren’t always sure their messages were being correctly interpreted, but they managed to live with the tribes for months without any serious problems.

As they traveled farther west, however, they began to encounter Indians who spoke languages they couldn’t understand and without someone who knew the languages they were forced to use Indian sign language. One of the members of the group, George Drouillard (usually called Drewyer in the journals, since that’s how his name was pronounced) was so accomplished at this language that he became their official interpreter. It wasn’t until August, however, that he was able to use his sign language skills, when the Corps contacted the Oto Indians.

George Drouillard was the 28-year-old son of a French Canadian father and a Shawnee Indian mother. He had been recommended to the captains as an excellent hunter and tracker, with knowledge of the Indians’ character as well as their sign language. Captain Meriwether Lewis recruited him from Fort Massac in November 1803.

As a civilian, Drouillard earned a stipend of twenty-five dollars a month. He and York, Clark’s slave, were the only non-military members of the Corps to finish the expedition in St. Louis. In addition to considering him an able communicator, Lewis also called him the most skillful hunter among the men.

In addition to sign language, Drouillard also knew French and translated the captains’ English for Charbonneau, who spoke both French and Hidatsa, in which language he talked with his wife Sacagawea. She in turn could also speak with her people in Shoshone.

As they proceeded on, Lewis acknowledged in his journal that the way Drouillard talked with his hands might be “imperfect and liable to error,” but he concluded that: “The strong parts of the ideas are seldom mistaken.”

At the end of the expedition, Lewis asked Secretary of War Henry Dearborn to reward George Drouillard more than the agreed upon $25 per month for the expedition. He summarized Drouillard’s service to the expedition: “It was his have encountered, on various occasions, with either Captain Clark or myself, all of the most dangerous and trying scenes of the voyage, in which he uniformly acquited himself with honor.” He added, “he has been peculiarly usefull from his knowledge of the common language of gesticulation, and his uncommon skill as a hunter and woodsman.”

When the expedition was over and the members began to leave, Drouillard purchased the rights to future land warrants from privates Whitehouse and Collins. He later sold the warrants at a profit and joined Manuel Lisa’s fur company, where he was named by two of the partners as their field representative. Ten years later he was killed by Indians and buried in an unmarked grave.


Even Toddlers Learned Sign Language

Indian sign language grew from a natural need. The tribal languages of native Americans varied so much that in order to communicate with one another they had to develop a sophisticated and widely recognized sign language. This suited their cultures in more than one way because they didn’t have to come close to a strange tribe to communicate. Even at a distance there would be a minimum of misunderstanding. Toddlers were taught the gestures and could communicate silently. This was important, since the tribes were constantly under threat from enemies. Indian sign language might be considered the first all-American language. It is a language with a grace and depth advanced by few other non-spoken language, except for sign language used by the deaf. There are some major differences between Indian sign language and that used by the deaf in America. For example, for the word “think,” Indian sign language uses a sign that indicates the heart, which is where they believed thought originated. ASL (American Sign Language) for the deaf places fingers against the forehead. Also, the deaf use a lot of facial expressions, while the Indians remained stoic, allowing only the hand gestures to carry the meaning. The basics of Indian sign language are fairly intuitive. To indicate “me,” you point to yourself with your thumb. To indicate another person, point your right index finger at him or her. For “yes,” nod your head. For “no,” shake your head. For “hear,” cup your hand behind your ear. For “eat,” with your right hand, fingers together, pass in front of your mouth several times. The old western movies used some signs that might be familiar to us. For example, the sign for “liar” (meaning to have two tongues). This sign is indicated by holding the right hand at the right side of the mouth, with fingers aimed to the left, then moving the hand forward in such a way that the fingers pass in front of the mouth. A white man, or “pale face,” is shown by holding the right hand horizontally, palm down, in front of the forehead at the level of the eyebrows, then moving it to the right. This indicates the band of white left by the white man’s hat. Other gestures we might recognize include “peace” and “war.” For “peace,” place the hands in front of the chest, with the left palm turned up. For “war,” clench both fists at your sides at waist level, then move them up and forward.

Different Ways to Form a Sentence

Because the language is made up of simple gestures, it cannot communicate at the level of a spoken language. All articles, prepositions, and small adjectives are left out. Verbs and nouns, often in combination, are usually enough to get the idea across. For example, if you want to ask a question, you preface the question with the question sign. This sign encompasses the words “what,” “where,” “why,” and “when” and is made in the following way: Holding the right hand, palm out, at the height of the shoulders with the fingers and thumb extended and separated, point outwards, turning the hand at the wrist two or three times. To ask “What is your name?” you need to phrase it as “What are you called?” The signs for this are Question, You, Called. For “call” or “called,” use the right hand, thumb touching the index finger. Then quickly extend the index finger and continue to extend the hand, pointing the index forward. This word, “call” and its resulting gesture is frequently used. To state the age of a person, or of past or future years, phrase it as “so many winters.” Show gender by adding the signs for “Man” or “Woman.” For the time of day, make the sign for Sun: Hold your hand toward the point in the heavens where the sun is at the time indicated. To specify a certain length of time during the day, indicate space on the sky over which the sun passes. To show how many “days” have passed, as in a journey, Indians indicated the number of nights, or sleeps. “Months” were indicated by the number of moons. “Years” were shown by the number of winters. Present time was expressed by the sign for “now,” and also by the sign “today.” Occasionally, for emphasis, both signs were used. Synonyms are covered by the basic word. For instance, the word “abandoned” can mean “divorced,” “tossed away,” “banished,” “desolate,” or “forsaken. “Good” means “level with the heart.” Therefore, swing the right hand out flat in a semi-circle away from the heart and towards the right. “Bad” means “thrown away.” Therefore, the motion of casting out something downward with the right hand indicates the word “bad.” Using sign language, you can indicate concepts, as well as tangibles. For example, for “God” (or the mystery of the Universe), use the signs for “medicine” and “big,” then point your index finger towards the sky. For “forget”: Make the sign for “night,” then a vigorous forward movement of the right hand, sweeping the hand towards the left side and passing over the left hand. For “forgive”: Raise both hands, closed except for extended thumbs and index fingers, to shoulder level, with palms facing the person addressed. Then move the hands forward, each describing a semi- circle. Then make the sign for “to go.” A number of emotions can also be signed: sadness, happiness, honesty, fear, anger. To show “cry,’ use both hands to imitate tears falling from the eyes.

To Indicate Commodities

Indians often traded for certain goods, or commodities. After they discovered coffee and the coffee grinder, they made a sign showing the handle of the grinder turning.

“Money” and “medal” were communicated by the same sign: Hold the right hand halfway up the chest, with the thumb and index finger forming an incomplete circle. Indians were very fond of medals and the soldiers especially bestowed medals on them in order to gain their confidence and favor.

For “tobacco”: Hold the left hand open, and with the right hand, rub the left palm in a circular manner, as though picking up bits of tobacco.

For “how much?” hold your fingers outstretched with the palm down. Then hold the left hand at neck level at an angle towards the right hand, which is held slightly forward of the left. With the index finger of the right hand, tap the left little finger, curling it under. As you touch each finger, curl it under.

Although most Indians today know English much better than sign language, it is still taught in certain classes. Boy Scouts and others also learn the language. Modern parents often teach their toddlers to sign before they can talk.

Much of the information in this article comes from the book by William Tomkins, titled Indian Sign Language, printed in 1969 by Dover Publications, Inc., Mineola, NY.


Manataka American Indian Council

Native American Sign Language

Indian Sign Language