Kiowa Sign Language.

Jennifer Graber reports for OUPBlog:

In 1890, a strange letter with “hieroglyphic script” arrived at Pennsylvania’s Carlisle Indian Industrial School. It was sent from a reservation in the Oklahoma Territory to a Kiowa student named Belo Cozad. Cozad, who did not read or write in English, was able to understand the letter’s contents—namely, its symbols that offered an update about his family. The letter provided news about relatives’ health and employment, as well as details about religious practice on the reservation.

While Belo Cozad understood the letter, Americans working at the school did not. Neither did reservation officials who saw the letter once Cozad returned to Oklahoma. Anthropologists working there sent a copy to the Smithsonian’s Bureau of Ethnology, where a staff member set out to understand it. Interviewed back on the reservation, Cozad provided “translations” of the letter. The anthropologists concluded that several Kiowas, though hardly all, knew this writing system. […]

The marks on Cozad’s letter mimicked the signs for individual words. A circle followed by four loops signifies four brothers. Three horizontal lines stand for the number three. A box with vertical lines, followed by a swooping downward and then upward line, means that someone has been buried in a grave. Together, the signs tell Cozad that he no longer had four brothers, but only three. One had recently died and been buried.

With this letter, Cozad’s family took an old form, Plains Indian Sign Language, and adapted it for their new situation. With the hope of reaching their kin in boarding school, they had put signs onto paper and placed it in the US mail.

The images at the link are well worth viewing. (Kiowa previously on LH.)

Comments

  1. David Eddyshaw says:

    The so-called Kiowa Apache were an Athapaskan-speaking group that become one of the Seven Bands of the Kiowa without (apparently) ever actually adopting the Kiowa language; they communicated by signing.

    (I originally typed “singing”, which would have been even cooler.)

  2. David Marjanović says:

    So… are these the same movements as one-handed sign language, just on paper instead of in the air???

    Because that would be so cool. It would be one of those ideas that are blindingly obvious, but only in hindsight.

    Kiowa Apache

    On Wikipedia here, with a history section saying: “It is recorded that many Kiowa Apache did not learn the Kiowa language, preferring to communicate with their allies using the sophisticated Plains Indian Sign Language, at which the Kiowa were past masters (having probably devised much of the system).” There’s also a link to a stub on the language, which states: ” Plains Apache is the most divergent member of the subfamily. The language is extremely endangered with perhaps only one or two native speaking elders. Alfred Chalepah, Jr., who might have been the last native speaker, died in 2008.”

  3. David Marjanović says:

    …and the most informative article on the language itself (two whole samples!) is the one in North Frisian (dialect of Amrum).

  4. Trond Engen says:

    I read that the Kiowas are believed to have invented Plains Signing. Could the inclusion of the Plains Apache be the reason for the invention? Or did Signing facilitate the inclusion of Athabaskan speakers? Kiowa itself is a cultural outlier in the Tanoan group, and the Kiowan ancestors must at some time have broken up from the pueblos. There’s a dramatic lost history in that confederation.

  5. I would think it likely that the Kiowa are culturally closer to the Proto-(Kiowa-)Tanoan state, given that the Pueblos are a Kulturbund (and to some extent a Sprachbund), with four unrelated language groups: Kiowa-Tanoan and Uto-Aztecan with relatives outside the Pueblos, and Keresan and Zuni confined to the Pueblos. We don’t have modern DNA for most Pueblos, but even if Proto-Kiowa-Tanoan began in the Four Corners, it seems unlikely that town-dwellers would become pastoral nomads. Against that, there is no deep separation between Kiowa and Towa, Tewa, or Tiwa.

  6. Hmm. Apparently not. Some of the reconstructed PKT words refer to agriculture.

  7. Kiowa history says they came south from around Montana, as I recall.

  8. Trond Engen says:

    John C.: it seems unlikely that town-dwellers would become pastoral nomads.

    Yes. And not even pastoral nomads, but bison-hunting nomads. As I said, the history of the Kiowa people must be an interesting one.

    The Kiowa tribal organisation in six bands could well have emerged as an alliance of culturally distinct and linguistically unrelated peoples, with the Kiowa Apache as the probably latest addition. If the culturally Tanoan element was a minority contribution to the ethnos, lifestyle and oral history might have had a different origin than the language.

  9. David Marjanović says:

    And not even pastoral nomads, but bison-hunting nomads.

    It’s hard to become a pastoral nomad when dogs are the only domestic animals.

  10. marie-lucie says:

    Yes, I was just wondering what animals the Kiowa could have been pastoring. Following large herds, perhaps, rather than pastoring them.

  11. David Eddyshaw says:

    Although the Plains Indian culture has such a claim on the imagination as archetypal, in its classic form it depends on the horse, obviously, and was consequently quite a recent development. A lot of disparate groups adopted that lifestyle once it actually became feasible.

    Not that culture necessarily goes with language, of course, but the diversity of the language groups does point the same way: Uto-Aztecan, Athapascan, Siouxan, Algonquian … all with sedentary linguistic kindred.

  12. Yes, it’s been amazing to see how during my lifetime the image of the “Indian” has changed and deepened, with far greater awareness of the elements introduced by the European incursion (decimation and the horse, for two obvious examples) and the previous complex sedentary societies. We had become addicted to the imagery of whooping horse-mounted warriors…

  13. marie-lucie says:

    DE: Siouxan

    I have only seen it written Siouan.

  14. Although the Plains Indian culture has such a claim on the imagination as archetypal, in its classic form it depends on the horse, obviously, and was consequently quite a recent development.

    It was here on LH that I learned that some of the prehistory of Finnic and Sami Scandinavia was motivated by the Roman fur trade.

  15. Rodger C says:

    IIRC, that Roman fur trade started at just about the time (unsurprisingly) that the word Fenni (with early Germanic close e) first appears in Latin (in Tacitus, I think, ca. 100 CE).

  16. Trond Engen says:

    David E.: Although the Plains Indian culture has such a claim on the imagination as archetypal, in its classic form it depends on the horse, obviously, and was consequently quite a recent development. A lot of disparate groups adopted that lifestyle once it actually became feasible.

    Hat: Yes, it’s been amazing to see how during my lifetime the image of the “Indian” has changed and deepened, with far greater awareness of the elements introduced by the European incursion (decimation and the horse, for two obvious examples) and the previous complex sedentary societies.

    True, but there was a distinct “Steppe dynamics” working on the Great Plains even before the European contact and the arrival of the horse. The Navajo and Apache arrived in their current location around the Pueblo cultures before the first European set foot on Hispaniola. I hadn’t realised the importance of the pulling dog for the nomadic lifestyles on the Great Plains before the arrival of the horse. Could the Southern Athabaskans have introduced the dog travois to the Plains, being the first to move long distances with whole families? And for Steppe dynamics, are there evidence of long-distance trade between the northern forests and the Pueblo cultures?

    Even so, Athabaskans probably weren’t the first mobile groups to put pressure on the sedentary peoples of the Southwest. The concentration in larger settlements from around 1000 CE was arguably, at least in part, a response to aggression from more mobile neighbours, as was the abandonment of the northern Ancestral Pueblo settlements in the 12th-13th century.

    Me (further up): If the culturally Tanoan element was a minority contribution to the ethnos, lifestyle and oral history might have had a different origin than the language.

    One known event that caused a great upheaval and streams of refugees from the pueblos was the Pueblo uprising of 1680-92, which would be just in time for fleeing Kiowa to join an alliance of bands reestablishing themselves around modern-day Kansas after migrating from the Northern Plains. But this seems too recent for the Pueblo origin to have been lost from memory when oral history was first recorded.

    An older event would be the first arrival of the Spanish in the 1540’s, but I can’t find any accounts of migrations or abandoned pueblos in its aftermath.

    My best bet would be the dissolution of the Ancestral Pueblo Culture around 1200 CE. The Kiowas could been Tanoan agriculturalists who responded to external stress by taking up a mobile way of life rather than moving south to larger settlements. I read that the Ancestral Pueblo Culture extended east into the Great Plains, so they may not even have moved that far.

    But I’ll also mention the spread of agriculture from the south from the eighth century CE. The Kiowas could have been Tanoan hunter-gatherers from the Colorado Plateau who moved east into the Great Plains to continue their lifestyle. Shared vocabulary could then be due to the long period of contact with the older sedentary cultures further south.

  17. Trond Engen says:

    Thinking of how recent results in genetics have shown that the spread of Old World agriculture consistently involved colonization by agriculturalists, it’s time to consider if the founders of the sedentary cultures of the American Southwest were migrants from the south. But which of the many linguistic groups came from the south, and which were locals who adapted to the ways of their new neighbours? I think the slow spread into the Colorado Plateau means that the Ancestral Pueblo culture was mainly due to local adaptation, and based on geography and the existence of the Kiowa, I think it may have been Proto-Tanoan. Hopi looks like an adaptation or intrusion by Uto-Aztecan nomads at first glance, but the clear overweight of southern sedentary relatives suggests that it came from the south and that also the Shoshone/Comanche gave up a sedentary lifestyle for a nomadic one, maybe in the same crisis as the Kiowa.

  18. David Eddyshaw says:

    As the saying goes: “Comanche is just bad Shoshone spoken from the back of a horse.”

  19. Uto-Aztecan, Athapascan, Siouxan, Algonquian … all with sedentary linguistic kindred.

    As well as Irish Travelers and Romani, of course.

    Comanche is just bad Shoshone spoken from the back of a horse.

    Added to the Essentialist Explanations queue.

  20. David Marjanović says:

    Irish Travelers

    and their continental analog.

  21. Marja Erwin says:

    I don’t know if these point to a continental-scale shift, but Toltec Tula peaked from 900 to 1150, and the Mississippian culture-complex from around 1000 to 1540.

  22. Trond Engen says:

    I’ve not been able to find much on the spread of agriculture. From the Wikipedia articles on the predessors of the Puebloans, I gather that the first farming came to Northwestern Mexico around 3500 BCE, but that it remained a supplementory activity for peoples who were still mostly foragers until a set of technical and organizational innovations that may or may not have been introduced through migrations. These were the introduction of ceramics and a wide range of new crops around 300 CE, and the development of irrigation systems in the centuries thereafter. And ballcourts.

  23. Richard Eckert says:

    I am reading this thread and trying to figure out where to begin. First, there for intertribal use sign language was a language of diplomats. If we are to believe the1528 journals of Spanish explore Cabacca de Vera, then we have a personal observation of an intertribal sign language that extended from south of what is now Mexico into Canada. Such a language could not have possibly been developed in the short time between Columbus and Cabacca de Vera. Yet, soon after his return to Spain, more elaborate signing languages emerge, get exported to France and yen brought back to America with the French taking credit for it. The evidence is thin except for the journal.

    In regard to pictographs – yes the Plains tribes get lots of credit, but the REAL translation of Ojibwa is “picture writers”. Moreover, the 1890 letter written in pictographs and s not to BAE was more likely than not, reviewed by Garrick Mallory. He is an interesting dude. He specialized in pictographs and sign languages. Spent a lot of time looking at tribal signs and providing a record of illustration of signs used. However, Mallory was nearing social evolutionismand presumed signed languages to be primitive in an inferior sense, below the evolutionary scale of vocalized languages. Yet, there is no denying he value of Mallory writings I. The first annual report of BAE. Many Kiowa sign language signs are described in it.

    What most folks are not aware of is that English taught at Carlisle (where my grandmother went btw – yes her school records can be looked up and proven if anyone doubts that) was imported from what is now Gallaudet University, the only university hat is explicitly for Deaf. Anyway that is another pet project of mine. English then became the intertribal language.

    What seems strange to me is that no one at Carlisle seems to have shown the letter to Colonel Pratt who was running the show there. Surely his experience in the Plains would have brought him into contact with some of the written histories. Pictographs yes, but written histories none the less.

    Disclaimer – certainly I have biases about tribal sign languages as I am Ojibwe and Deaf.

    I do think folks can have fun reading first annual report of BAE which even gives the origins of thumbing one’s nose, signs used in DaVinci’s last upper, and signs on vases from the Homeric Gallery in Smithsonion in 1880. Oh yeah, it is in that writing that the translations of Cabacca de Vera’s journal can be found.

  24. Richard Eckert says:

    For to mentio my niece married a Kiowa guy who was presumed to be deaf and taught Kiowa sign language. Not same as PISL.

  25. SFReader says:

    It’s hard to become a pastoral nomad when dogs are the only domestic animals.

    I am not sure what do you mean.

    In my book, the Plains Indians after introduction of horses were most certainly pastoral nomads, because they were now raising their own livestock – horses.

    Thats more than enough to qualify as pastoral nomadism – hunting bisons can’t eliminate the fact that they became pastoral people.

  26. David Marjanović says:

    Point taken; and now I’m wondering about the Botai culture.

  27. SFReader says:

    The Botai culture is classical sedentary animal husbandry.

    Has more in common with sheep farmers of England than Plains Indians or Mongolian nomads

  28. Richard Eckert: Thanks for that extremely interesting information!

  29. Tim May says:

    Cabacca de Vera

    Do you not perhaps mean Cabeza de Vaca?

  30. Presumably.

  31. marie-lucie says:

    Such an interesting name, Cabeza de Vaca! How does one get the name “Cow’s Head”? From an ancestor who ran a tavern with a cow’s head painted on its street sign (as is still common in England)?

  32. Quoth WP:

    Álvar Núñez’s maternal surname, Cabeza de Vaca (meaning “head of cow”) was said to be associated with a maternal ancestor, Martín Alhaja. He had shown the Spanish king a secret mountain pass, marked by a cow’s skull, enabling the king to win the Battle of Las Navas de Tolosa against the Muslim Moors in 1212.

    But I suspect this is folk etymology.

  33. Such an interesting name

    Cf Svinhufvud:
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Svinhufvud

  34. Boars are game animals and the nobility hunted them right up through the 19C. Cows are not.

  35. Rodger C says:

    Bucéfalo Cabeza de Vaca.

  36. marie-lucie says:

    RC, that name seems to be overdoing it.

  37. David Eddyshaw says:

    But this is a world in which there is a real person called Cuauhtémoc García-García PhD PhD. Who dares to chart limits to the possible?

  38. Trond Engen says:

    SFReader: The Botai culture is classical sedentary animal husbandry.

    Has more in common with sheep farmers of England than Plains Indians or Mongolian nomads

    I don’t know if anyone knows to what degree the Botai people were sedentary. But I would think that their use of the horse had something in common with the Tundra/Taiga taming of the reindeer a few thousand years later, i.e. following (or leading) the herds on something similar to their natural seasonal treks. Also, nomadism are different things. The highly mobile societies of the mounted steppe and prairie warriors are different from the pastoral nomads taking their livestock on annual treks, trading with the locals along the way.

  39. SFReader says:

    The site of Botai is located on the Iman-Burluk River, a tributary of the Ishim River. The site has at least 153 pithouses.

    If 153 pithouses don’t make you sedentary…,

  40. Trond Engen says:

    … they may make you semi-sedentary. I agree that pithouses are for regular settlement, and the cemeteries point in the same direction, but do we know if the settlements were used all year or seasonally? Did the Botai people keep much heavy equipment and goods? Are there storage facilities for food on the sites? Or access to different natural resources?

  41. Pit houses: were they inhabited all year round? At least some Kazakh clans had winter houses at the Southern end of their annual migration routes, and lived in yurts only from spring to autumn, migrating to their summer pastures and then back to the winter quarters, where they stayed with their herds over the winter. Additionally, they left part of the clan behind at the winter quarters to collect feed for the winter and do some limited agriculture. The reason for that pattern is that in the Western part of the Eurasian steppe zone, most precipitation falls in the winter and cattle often cannot get at the grass through the snow. This is different to the pattern in Mongolia, where most precipitation falls in the summer and in normal winters, cattle can be left grazing outside; the risk is that in exceptional winters with too much snow, cattle will die in big numbers because they cannot reach the grass.

  42. SFReader says:

    Pit houses: were they inhabited all year round? At least some Kazakh clans had winter houses at the Southern end of their annual migration routes, and lived in yurts only from spring to autumn, migrating to their summer pastures and then back to the winter quarters, where they stayed with their herds over the winter.

    Ishim river is North Kazakhstan (and even South Siberia), so Botai settlement can’t be winter quarters.

  43. Trond Engen says:

    Richard Eckert: First, there for intertribal use sign language was a language of diplomats. If we are to believe the1528 journals of Spanish explore Cabacca de Vera, then we have a personal observation of an intertribal sign language that extended from south of what is now Mexico into Canada. Such a language could not have possibly been developed in the short time between Columbus and Cabacca de Vera.

    Agreed. Also, there was less need for a “neutral” language of diplomacy in Meso-America after the introduction of Spanish as the language of administration.

    Yet, soon after his return to Spain, more elaborate signing languages emerge, get exported to France and yen brought back to America with the French taking credit for it.

    Interesting, but I’m not sure I understand. Could it be that the trading opportunities created in the plains and forests of North America, first by the Spanish and then by the French, led to more inter-tribal contact (and conflict), but since the presence of the European powers was less intrusive than in Meso-America (for reasons of geography and existing political organization), the French language didn’t become a means of inter-tribal communication — at least not west of the Great Lakes?

    What most folks are not aware of is that English taught at Carlisle (where my grandmother went btw – yes her school records can be looked up and proven if anyone doubts that) was imported from what is now Gallaudet University, the only university hat is explicitly for Deaf. Anyway that is another pet project of mine. English then became the intertribal language.

    No doubting. Good people’s word is taken at face value.

    Do you mean that the teaching of English at Carlisle was imported from Gallaudet because of the use of sign languages among the students at both institutions? Or do you mean that the development of signed languages among the deaf owes something to the intertribal sign languages of North America?

    I do think folks can have fun reading first annual report of BAE which even gives the origins of thumbing one’s nose, signs used in DaVinci’s last upper, and signs on vases from the Homeric Gallery in Smithsonion in 1880. Oh yeah, it is in that writing that the translations of Cabacca de Vera’s journal can be found.

    https://www.gutenberg.org/files/32938/32938-h/main.html

  44. Or do you mean that the development of signed languages among the deaf owes something to the intertribal sign languages of North America?

    I think that must be it. Of course home-sign is as old as humanity (in concept, not in detail), but the idea of a systematically taught Deaf sign language that all Deaf people should, in principle, learn, may well owe something to the exposure of Europeans to Plains Sign Language. It is known that variants of it were or are used among the Deaf of certain Native nations, particularly among the Navajo and Blackfoot.

  45. @SFReader: For a place to be winter quarters, it only needs to be more Southern than some other place. Do we know the range of the Botai culture?

  46. Trond Engen says:

    Not even more southern. I’d say “a more convenient location to spend the winter”, and that could be seemingly in spite of climate. Sami reindeer herders in Norway take their herds to the coast in spring and back into the mountains in the autumn — to feed on proteine-rich grass of the growth season and subsist on moss and lichen through the winter.

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