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.

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