The warpath that our ancestors followed was not without rules or regulations. Prayers were sent to the Creator Above (Houu) and roles were assigned. All the warriors knew the sign language particular to their tribe and were on alert for any sign of danger.
In September 1880, Little Raven and Left Hand of the Southern Arapaho and Bobtail and Big Horse of the Cheyenne were part of a delegation to Washington, D.C. on behalf of their tribes. During their visit, they shared some of the signals they used when on the warpath.
They explained that when the Arapaho or Cheyenne warriors would leave their family camp to go on the warpath, there were certain rules and ceremonies that were observed to ensure the success of the raids.
They would first announce their intentions and receive the blessings of the old men through ritual and ceremonies. They would then send runners so that neighboring friends could join them.
The pipe-bearers were the first ones appointed a post, usually after already being on the warpath a few days. These men carried the sacred pipes and preceded the war party while on the move.
The success of the expedition would be endangered if anyone crossed ahead of these pipe-bearers so warriors joining the war party would avoid riding up before the head of the column. All new arrivals would instead join the group from the rear or the side.
When the war party approached a potential elevated lookout, they hid themselves in the surrounding areas. Just before dawn, scouts approached the area with caution to make sure that none of the enemy had reached the summit before them.
The scouts would then watch the site for any objects in motion and would closely monitor the flight patterns of the birds. If any bird landed on the hill or butte, it would indicate that there was nothing to scare them off. However, if a large bird, such as a raven, crow or eagle, flew towards the hilltop and then made a sudden swerve to either side and disappeared, it would indicate that something or someone was there.
If the scout suspected the enemy were near, he would signal “danger” to the rest of the war party watching him. He would do this by grasping the blanket he wore with his right hand and wave it downward from a shoulder position.
If there was no enemy visible, the scout would ascend to the lookout slowly and undercover as much as possible. After scanning the horizon and finding no one, the scout would signal the all clear or “clear surface” by grasping his blanket and waving it horizontally from right to left and back again repeatedly.
However, if the enemy was spotted, the scout would have given the alarm by running in a zigzag down the hill on a side visible to the watchers.
Should any expedition or advance be attempted at night, the same signals made with the blanket are made with a firebrand constructed of a grass bundle tied to a short pole.
When a war party camps overnight or longer, a piece of wood would have been stuck into the ground, pointing in the direction they had gone. Cuts, notches and other marks would represent the number of days the party spent traveling between camps so that warriors following them would know where to go.
A hunting party used the same signs and signals when chasing game. A scout on an elevated lookout point, would indicate to the hunters below that no game had been spotted by grasping his blanket and waving it horizontally from side to side at shoulder height.
However, when game was spotted, the scout would ride (or run) left to right in a zigzag for a short distance. If it is a large buffalo herd, the scout would increase his zigs and zags in proportion to the size of the herd. A quicker gait would indicate that the herd is very large and the hunting party needs to hurry to catch them.
Mirrors were also used to signal from one elevation to another but the system had fallen out of disuse and has been forgotten.
This information was rewritten from its original form in “Sign Language Among North American Indians” by Garrick Mallery, pages 542 – 543. The photo of the delegation that provided this information is originally from the National Archives and Records and this scanned version is in “The Trace of the Southern Arapaho” by Bobby F. Steere, page 42. The ledger art is from Manuscript 4452-a, National Anthropological Archives, Smithsonian Institution.
Hohou! – Jackie Dorothy