Friday, December 6, 2013

Expressions Of Gratitude: Thank You In Speech And Sign

"Hand Talk, or Plains Indian Sign Language, existed from Mexico to Canada," says Dr. Jesse Johnson, enrolled member of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe, author of map.
Expressions Of Gratitude
"Thank You" In Speech And Sign
By Dakota Wind
GREAT PLAINS – Kevin Locke, enrolled member of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and emminent flute-player and world renowned hood dancer, finished his program with a recitation of White Cloud’s “An Indian Prayer” which included  a demonstration of the Plains Indian sign language.

Accompanying Locke was Reuben Fast Horse, also an enrolled member of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and a traditional singer and flute-player in his own right. Fast Horse is also a hand-talker, or signer, of the Plains Indian Sign and Gesture language, the world’s first universal langauge.

The program came at the latter end of November, close to the national American holiday known as Thanksgiving. In North Dakota, the entire month is designated as Native American Heritage Month. The program, in Locke’s and Fast Horse’s execution, bespoke of the universal thread that is humanity in language, song, story, and dance.

I turned to Fast Horse as Locke was taking a few questions on stage and asked how one signs gratitude. Fast Horse set his hand drum down on the table he was seated at and extended his arms up and out and shoulder level, fingers extended and gently curved, palms out, and patted his hands downward to about waist level.

Locke uses the same gesture to express gratitude. He learned from his mother, Patricia, who was also a signer. The gesture is synominous with respect to someone or something.


Marland Aitson, Kiowa, demonstrates the sign for "thank you," from George Fronval's "Indian Signs And Signals."

Cedric Goodhouse, and his wife Sissy, both enrolled members of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and keepers of the living culture, offered a program of their own in Bismarck the previous week, also to commemorate Native American Heritage Month. Afterward, I asked about methods of expressing gratitude. One might say philámayayA or philámiya pó, the first an expression of gratitude to someone, the second is the way a man would express his gratitude to more than one person. The phrase wóphila, an expression of thanksgiving or appreciation, can be used to express common thanks, but its usage is acquainted with blessings and prayers.

During the Sioux Wars of the 1870s, a military officer named William Philo Clark was sent to Dakota Territory. There he personally lead commands of Crow, Pawnee, Cheyenne, Shoshone, Arapahoe, and Lakota. In the evenings he witnessed entire conversations pass with no difficulty among people who spoke different languages. Clark was stationed at Red Cloud and Spotted Tail Agencies then was assigned north, either to run mail or manage another detachment of US Indian Scouts, but he found himself among the Mandan, Arikara, Assiniboine, and Bannocks, and he found that the Plains sign and gesture langauge a reliable method of communicting.

In 1881, General Phil Sheridan assigned Clark to submit a compilation of the Indian sign and gesture langauge to the military, a comprehensive work that eventually became known as The Indian Sign Language. Within this work is an entry for gratitude.

Clark recorded that the concept of gratitude as he learned it as, “You have taken pity on me; I will remember it, and take pity on you.” The sign is as follows: hold the right hand near the heart, thumb and index nearly extended, palmer surface near ends pressed together, other fingers closed; move right hand outwards (which represents something drawn out of the heart; this means “thanks”); followed by the sign for “Give,” which is as Locke and Fast Horse articulate gratitude through sign.


Tompkins pictured here engaging in the Plains Indian Sign Language with the Lakȟóta. Tompkins was given the friendship name Waŋblí WíyutȟA, Sign Talking Eagle.

In the 1880s, William Tompkins was raised at Fort Sully, south of Pierre, SD, then in Dakota Territory, near what became the Crow Creek and Lower Brule Sioux Indian Reservations. Tompkins put together his own book with accompanying illustrations about the sign and gesture langauge, but also including a little of the pictographic langauge and even a page on smoke signals.

Tompkins book, Indian Sign Language, published in 1931, concurs with Locke’s and Fast Horse’s method of expressing thanks. Later publications, like Robert Hofsinde’s Indian Sign Language, and George Fronval’s Indian Signs And Signals, also correlate the method of articulating thanks used by Locke and Fast Horse.

Another non-native, Alfred Burton Welch, was born on a homestead near Armour, SD (then Dakota Territory) in 1874 to a traveling Methodist minister father. The Welch family moved to Tacoma, WA. AB Welch went to university in Puget Sound, then served in the US Military in the Philippines. Welch moved to Mandan, ND but maintained his military service in the National Guard. While in Mandan, Welch grew close to the Sihásapa (Blackfeet) Lakȟóta, in particular, Mahtó WatȟákpA (Charging Bear), also called Chief John Grass who fought in the Battle of the Little Bighorn. Grass grew fond of Welch, so fond in fact, that he adopted Welch as his son in the Huŋká (Making-Of-Relatives) ceremony.

While Welch became familiar with the Lakȟóta on the Standing Rock Sioux Indian Reservation he recorded several stories and even took a few notes about the Plains Indian sign and gesture language.

In Welch’s notes is mention of how one articulates gratitude, which is described as follows: draw one’s hand (left or right) over one’s face, touching the forehead and then down below one’s chin. This method of signing gratitude, as it was recorded on Standing Rock in 1919, was accompanied with the interjection hahó hahó, which means  delight, gratitude, or joy. Welch recorded that signers would accompany the gesture with the interjection of hayé hayé, which also conveyed gratitude but was/is addressed to the Creator.

The Lakȟóta also say and accept thanks in English too, and offer a warm handshake.

It is especially good luck to gift a Lakȟóta twenty dollars. I’m just kidding, it isn’t. But if you gave me a twenty I’d be grateful. 

1 comment:

  1. Ha! I read the part about giving a Lakhota $20 and thought "Wow... really? I've never heard that before! Learn something new every day!".

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