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Ernest Seton Thompson, William Tomkins, & sign language of the American Indians

By H Dominic W Stiles, on 1 May 2015

Before Europeans went to North America, it seems there were already extensive sign languages there, which were used for inter-tribal communication.  In the introduction to his book Universal Indian Sign Language of the Plains Indians of North America (1st ed. 1926), William Tomkins says,

There is a sentiment connected with the Indian Sign Language that attaches to no other. It is probably the first American language. It is the first and only American universal language. It may be the first universal language produced by any people. It is a genuine Indian language of great antiquity. It has a beauty and imagery possessed by few, if any, other languages. It is the foremost gesture language that the world has ever produced.

The author lectured on Indian problems to many audiences, and at all times the keenest interest was shown in sign language demonstrations, and he was asked, hundreds of times, to make the record permanent, and to thereby preserve and perpetuate the original American language which otherwise is fast passing away.

This is shown by the fact that in 1885 Lewis F. Hadley, at that time a foremost authority on sign, claimed that as a result of extensive investigation he had determined that there were over 110,000 sign-talking Indians in the United States. (ibid p. 3)

Tomkins grew up, he tells us, in Dakota Territory, at Fort Sully. I have been unable to uncover any further biographical information about Tomkins (please contribute below if there is anything you can add), but his book was adopted by the Boy Scouts of America and used at the World Scout Jamboree of 1929.  I suspect that is when this copy was signed by him.  Tomkins is pictured with one of the last great Sioux chiefs who helped preserve his nation’s culture, but whose life reflects his nation’s eclipse, Chief Flying Hawk.

TTomkinsSouth Shields born Ernest Thompson Seton (1860-1946), was a skilled artist and writer who started modern scouting in America, inspiring Baden Powell, and was one of the pioneers of the conservation movement.  He was also father of the historical novelist Anya Seton.  There is plenty to be found about this fascinating man so I will not repeat it.

We have a copy of Seton’s book, Sign Talk, A Universal Signal Code, without Apparatus, for Use in the Army, the Navy, camping, Hunting, and Daily Life (1918), that was owned by Sir Richard Paget, and perhaps influenced his sign system.  Here we see some of his marginal notes – click on the image for a larger size.

Scanned from a Xerox Multifunction Device (6)
Sign Language – Indian Sign Language [accessed 1/5/2015]

Davis, Jeffrey E. Hand talk : sign language among American Indian nations, CUP 2010

Tomkins, W., Universal Indian Sign Language of the Plains Indians of North America, 1st ed. 1926 and 4th ed. 1929


Seton, Ernest Thompson, Sign Talk, 1918

NOTE: I use the term ‘American Indians’ because that is the term Seton and Tomkins used.

5 Responses to “Ernest Seton Thompson, William Tomkins, & sign language of the American Indians”

  • 1
    Les premiers dictionnaires de langues amérindiennes (3ème partie) : l'Amérique du Nord (XIXe-XXe siècle) – Le Dicopathe wrote on 28 July 2018:

    […] nom qui être attribué à ce langage : le Plains Indian Sign Language (PISL). Entre 1884 et 1894, William TOMKINS vit dans une réserve du Dakota, où il travaille dans un ranch en compagnie d’Indiens. […]

  • 2
    Robert wrote on 31 July 2019:

    William Tomkins is my great grandfather. His family ended up settling in northern Ohio. Our family tree was recently passed down to me after my mother’s death.

  • 3
    H Dominic W Stiles wrote on 31 July 2019:

    Thanks for sharing that!

  • 4
    Leigh Marymor wrote on 24 November 2019:

    Robert, I am a research associate at the Museum of Northern Arizona and have been researching your Great Grandfather, William Tomkins, for many years. He is one of the few know Euro Americans who was conversant in Ojibwa/Sioux Picture Writing. I have been looking into a group of petroglyph sites found scattered throughout 8 western states that made use of O/S Picture Writing in the late 1800s to leave enigmatic messages overlooking historic trails and mining sites. I would very much like to connect with your family to see if there is someone who remembers William Tomkins or who knows if his notes and library were archived in a repository. Maybe Dominic Stiles could help connect us? Best, Leigh

  • 5
    Vincent Rouard wrote on 21 January 2020:

    Good evening,
    this is interesting, Thank you
    If you want to know more about PISL, you can visit this website: laparoledugeste.fr or my Facebook page: Vincent Rouard Conteur.
    Have a good day.