A gentle… almost magical… puff of smoke rises up toward the clouds and heavens, floating, suspended in space, lifting then gradually disappearing, being consumed by the earth surrounding it and the breath of the wind that carries it (Grandmother Selma).
Purpose of Smoke Signals
American Indians used smoke signals to alert others of multiple situations, including, to warn of danger, to call the people to a common meeting area and to transmit news (Grandmother Selma / Clark 411). This ancient skill stems from the larger category of American Indian non-verbal communication. Different types of this, most notably sign language, were essential for American Indian communication. Since each tribe had their own unique language, these types of non-verbal signals enabled communication among diverse groups. This tool for transmitting messages was also extremely useful in mountainous or heavily forested regions (Clark 415).
Types of Signals
The smoke could be transformed into many different types of shapes to communicate different signals. For example, the “[s]moke could be made to curl in spirals, ascend in puffs or circles, [and] even parallel lines. Some signals resembled the letter V or Y and some were zigzag” (Grandmother Selma).
There never has been a standard code for smoke signals. This is partially due to the idea that the signals were oftentimes meant to be secretive. Because the signals were visible to all, the enemy would be able to see the message in the sky but, because of the non-standardized system, could not make out the meaning behind the smoke. Thus, unique codes were secretly developed between individuals or groups of people for their private use (Tomkins 92).
The Standard Code
There were a few abstract, commonly understood signals:
- One puff meant ATTENTION.
- Two puffs meant ALL'S WELL.
- Three puffs of smoke, or three fires in a row, signifies DANGER, TROUBLE OR A CALL FOR HELP.
Another widely accepted signal known about today is the announcement of a successful battle. Because two columns signify good luck, building “two fires a short distance from each other [which would send] up two parallel columns of smoke” would demonstrate this message (Clark 415).
It is important to understand that the significance of the number three goes much beyond that of smoke signals. Amongst outdoors people if “three shouts, three whistles, three shots from a gun, three smoke signals, three fires in a row at night in a place where they might be visible, all should be interpreted to convey the message that a person is in danger or requires assistance” (Tomkins 92).
The Apache Code
The Apache tribe had a specific way to communicate that strangers were approaching and their reason for approach. “[T]he sighting of one puff quickly losing its geometric shape indicated that a strange party had been spotted approaching. If those ‘puffs’ were frequent and rapidly repeated, it transmitted the message that ‘the stranger approaching’ was in fact many in number and armed” (Grandmother Selma).
How to Create (Tomkins 92)
1. Pre-arrange code of signals 2. Party creating signal goes to an adjacent high hill or mountain (bring blanket or tarp) 3. Build a fire on a visible point 4. Wait until fire is blazing 5. Create smoke fire by adding some handfuls of grass or green branches 6. Use blanket or tarp to control the smoke, liberating the fire in a series of puffs to convey the message
Fire bowls refer to the pits the smoke fires create in the ground. They are “saucer shaped depressions, round or square, five to eight feet across and lined with field stones.” Studied for many years, especially those “in close proximity to the ‘Warrior Path’ that ran between encampments of Shawnee near the Scioto River and Ohio River near Richmondale,” the size of the fire bowls directly correlates to the type and amount of leaves and brush used to produce the smoke. The stones, which line the edge of the fire bowls, allow for both the immediate control of the fire and to anchor the polls that the blankets attach to regulate the smoke (Grandmother Selma).
Smoke signals have often been cited as “Indian Telegraphy.” They were able to transmit messages over vast distances. Oftentimes, multiple messages were transmitted in a row, allowing for roll reversal – the receiver to become the sender and the sender to become the receiver (Grandmother Selma).
While there is no account of the end of the use of smoke signals, it would be quite probable that as European settlers came to America, their written culture – among other socio-cultural changes – replaced that of American Indian smoke signals. As the code and use of smoke signals were created on an ad hoc basis, there is no linear progression of when their use began, how it changed over time and how the signals became extinct.
Besides smoke signals, American Indians took advantage of a myriad of other communication signal tools, such as, pony, blanket, mirror, fire-arrows, and figures or pictures. Below is a chart indicating each signals purpose and way in which it was performed (Clark 411-416):
Signal Purpose Technique Interesting Fact Pony To attract attention, denote danger, indicate presence of enemy *Riding in a small circle, forwards or backwards.
- Speed of riding indicates importance. Before American Indians had ponies they would perform this act by foot.
Blanket To attract attention, question, interrogate, to ask the reason for anything *Hold blanket with both hands as far apart as possible so that the majority of the front of the blanket is visible.
- Swing blanket vertically from left to right, touching the ground on each side. There are nine signals that are commonly understood.
Mirror To attract attention and give warning *Flash the mirror on someone or something to call attention to it.
- Use the sunlight to direct the flashes. It was oftentimes used in romantic situations to call upon a desired one.
Fire-Arrows To burn animals (bears, raccoons) out of hallow trees *Fasten any highly inflammable material to an arrow.
- Light and discharge into the air. Little information about this signal exists but what is known is presumed to be highly exaggerated.
Figures or Pictures Gives information about where a party has gone, what it has accomplished, and it communicates the message of its war/peace intentions *Carve or draw figures or pictures on the ground, on bark of trees, or on pieces of skin. A pipe is the sign of peace while an illustrated broken pipe is the sign of war
The only group that still practices the use of smoke signals as a communication method is the Boy Scouts (Tomkins 92). They are constantly researching and inquiring about a smoke signal code. Smoke signaling is “[a] skill of the Native American Indians, also of the ancient Chinese and presently used by the Boy Scouts of America” (Grandmother Selma).
Mary Ahenakew at NIN (Native Information Network)
- Clark, William P. The Indian Sign Language. Philadelphia: L.R. Hamersly & Co., 1885. 411-16.
- Selma, Grandmother Selma. "Origins of the Smoke Signal." Mendota Mdewakanton Dakota Community. 8 Mar. 2008. 23 Nov. 2008 <http://mendotadakota.com/mn/tag/native-american-indian-smoke-signals/>.
- Tomkins, William. Indian Sign Language. New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1969. 92.