Northern Shoshone and Bannock
Traditional Culture
  Since Time Immemorial
Who's Who
All My Relations
Pipe Ceremony and Peacemaking
Great Circle
Intertribal Relations
"How the Indian Averted Famine"
Naming Ceremonies
Agaidika Perspective on Sacajawea
Horses, Trade, & Travel
References Cited

  Contemporary Culture
  Sovereignty & Tribal Government
Arts & Artists
Annual Festival Dances
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  Relationship with the U.S.
  Early Contact
Fur Trade
Naturalists in Shoshone Country
Missionaries and Emigrants
Making Treaties
Lemhi In Limbo
Lemhi Reservation and  Loss
Shrinking Reservation
References Cited

Image of Spaniard, from a Shoshone petroglyph in SE Idaho.
Courtesy Idaho State University Archives.

Lemhi Pass > Culture > Early Contact
Sign Language and Communication

Sign Language for "Whites"


"Conception: Hat or cap. Hold right hand, back up and to right, in front of, close to, and a little to left of face, index finger extended pointing to left, others and thumb closed; draw the hand to right, index finger passing horizontally in front, close to, and opposite eyes" (Rees ISU Archives).

"..when I write, I refer to the American as stranger, similar to John Wayne in his movies calling the strangers "pilgrims". So I always refer to the American as Stranger with a capital 'S'.

"And I coined a term, called 'on da beach ee whoa ho'. 'On da beach ee' means people of a different tribe, 'whoa-ho' means enemy, so this is a coined word which reflects the way we look at the oppressor that's taken over our lands. So, in this poem I'm referring to the coming of Lewis and Clark as 'On da beach ee whoa ho'- in other words stranger came among us.

"Now the title of this poem tells a whole story. In other words, a few of them came through, and they multiplied the whole population" (Edmo interview: 2002).


According to John Rees, agent on the Lemhi Reservation for many years...

"the Shoshone people, "long before the advent of Europeans, supposed that white persons existed somewhere and considered such beings a kin to himself. He derived the idea of the existence of a white or pale faced person from members of his own tribe who had fainting or swooning spells in which their complexion would turn to a lighter color. They believed that the pale faced person, like the fainting one was feebler and weaker in vigor, native ingenuity and the ego than the Indian. For this reason an aboriginal or native Indian could never be made to believe that a white man or anything that he did was as good as the red man and his ways and therefore he never wanted to learn to do anything in the manner in which the white man performed it. In fact he considered himself very superior to the white man and thought it be-littling to his character to learn any of the white man's ways of life. To adopt the white man's customs would detract from the essence of his Indianhood and would degrade and effeminate him. As related in the creation legend, the Chief father after putting everything in order on the earth, removed to the heavens and became "Tawb-ap-pah", the word "Tawb-bay", meaning the shining one. The spirit of the Indian is part of that "Tawb-bay" and at death will return to it and reside in the region of the sun. The Indian was put on earth first in order that he might people it and therefore his name for Indian is "Nim-ah-nim", meaning people of peoples. He considered the white man a later offspring from the sun and therefore called him "Ti-vo", meaning one originated from the sun" (Rees: ISU archives).

Instant History

"In 1863 a party of prospectors reached Stanley Basin in Custer County. While traveling along the old Indian trail they met a party of about sixty Indians. After a council wherein the whites and Indians exchanged mutual confidences, each proceeded on their respective journey.

"Three days after this meeting, the prospectors again passed the council grounds and were surprised to see a freshly blazed tree near the trail, on which the adventurers read a history of their meeting with the Indians in a pictograph. It was about five feet long and eighteen inches wide, and on its surface the artist had done his work so well in red and black pigment that every one of the ten men read it at once. image
Image and story courtesy Idaho State University Special Collections Dept., Collection #MC 12 1-21

"On the upper end of the blaze he had painted the figures of nine men and horses, representing the number the white men had, and their only dog. On the lower end of the pictograph six mounted Indians and one riderless horse appeared; not far from these the artist had painted a rifle and the accoutrements of which the Indian had divested himself. In the middle of the picture the two ambassadors were represented with clasped hands.

"Between them and the figure representing the white company, the artist had painted a miner's pick, near which was an arrow pointing in the direction the white men had gone. There was no mistaking the object of the pictograph; it was to advise their people passing that way that there might be or had been a party of gold hunters in the country" (Hailey: 1910).

Early Encounter with Whites


This interesting petroglyph relates some of the circumstances which surrounded a meeting of Indians with white men, perhaps the first ever seen by the Shoshones. The symbols are interpreted by Agent John Rees, based on his knowledge of sign language and information provided by members of the Lemhi Shoshone band.
According to Rees, fig. 1, the uppermost symbol of the petroglyph boulder, represents rain, below which are indications of sky, (fig. 2) earth and moon (fig.3) and man, in relation to earth (fig. 4).

Rees was unable to completely decipher the lower part of the petroglyph because it had, in part, been destroyed.

In fig. 5, a Spaniard is illustrated. Spaniards "were the first white people with whom the Shoshonis came in contact and were met by these Indians in the mountains to the south of their own habitat. This conclusion is arrived at from the Shoshonis' name for a "Spaniard" which is "Tow-ya ti-vo", meaning mountain white men." The place of meeting them must have been in the mountains of Colorado, New Mexico or Arizona.

In fig. 6, the number of men is recorded.. Rees notes that the symbol shows only five lines but there may have been more as the lower part of the rock is broken away.

A warrior is shown in fig. 7 welcoming the white men. "There is scarcely an exception to the statement that upon their first meeting, the red man always welcomed the white man" (Rees).

The warrior is also making signs for 'splendor' and 'glorious' and signals to heaven that this was a propitious event and time. "From the position of the two portions of this petroglyph," according to Rees, "it would signify that this meeting with the white men took place during a certain display or influence of the heavenly bodies, but just what the connection was or when has been obliterated, if written. It might have been an eclipse or conjunction of planets or a year of heavy rains. The especial effort made to set forth these things is my reason for believing that this writing is a record of their first meeting with the whites" (Rees: ISU Archives).

[Note: This page developed and adapted from a manuscript by John E. Rees entitled "Shoshoni petroglyphs along the Portneuf River, Idaho." Idaho State University Archives]
Background: Moonrise over Snake River near Three Island Crossing on the Oregon Trail Photo by Kim Lugthart