American Indian Heritage Month: Commemoration vs. Exploitation
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Language, Written in America, Pre-contact

Title: Pictographs
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Written languages existed throughout the Americas during the long pre-contact period, albeit in nonalphabetic form. Stories and messages have been encoded in the Aztec and Mayan codices, in wampum belts, and in petroglyphs and pictographs, as well as on rocks, hides, teepees, clothing, and ledger books. The nomadic Blackfeet and Shoshone peoples used Writing-on-Stone Provincial Park, located in a canyon on the Milk River in southern Alberta, as a campground for centuries. Consequently, many messages were left there, some of which detail hunting, warfare deeds, and daily life; others, the introduction of horses, guns, and metal. Some may represent ceremonial information. This writing dates back as far as about 1,800 years and as recently as around 1730. Some of the petrogylphs in the Southwestern United States, such as those found at the Ancestral Puebloan settlements at Chaco Canyon, are connected with calendrical counts and may have been used in conjunction with the astronomically aligned buildings to determine the proper solar, lunar, and stellar alignments used in ceremony. These glyphs date back nearly a thousand years. The petroglyphs and pictographs, using the same symbol systems, are distinguished by scholars from one another by their manner of creation. Pictographs are made using paints or pigments, often red ochre (pulverized iron ore and water), or drawn with a small piece of limestone. Petrogylphs are cut into rock with antlers, bones, other rocks, or, in more recent times, metal tools.

The documentary film, The American Indian's Sacred Ground, reveals that sign languages used in intertribal communication directly correspond to the corresponding written forms. The sign for snow, for instance, made by extending both arms from the elbow slightly above the waist with the fingers loose and making a wavy motion downward, relates to the petroglyph made by applying paint to the fingers and making the sign over the surface of the rock. This correspondence suggests an ingrained system, one that had been used for an extensive period of time, highly organized and systematic, pervasive across many tribal lines. In her article "On the Probable Origin of Plains Indian Sign Language," Patricia Kilroe, like the documentary film, notes the connection found by some archaeologists between North American petroglyphs and Plains Sign Language (PSL)—particularly a Tule River, California, glyph that includes the signs for rain, for nothing here, and for hunger; an Alaskan woodcarving from the late nineteenth century that shows the signs for nothing and for winter lodge, made by two men in a boat; and Dakota petroglyphs with an ear of corn representing the Arikara, signed in PSL as corn shellers and a figure making the sign for Kiowa (rattle-brained), made by circling the hand or hands horizontally on one or either side of the head.

Kilroe also lists at length correspondences between PSL and Mayan and Mixtec pictography. As opposed to some of the glyphs found in the continental United States and Canada, the Mayan and Mixtec figures all seem to be of the same sort as for the preceding sign for Kiowa—a figure gesturing the sign rather than a reproduction of the pattern of the sign, like that for snow or sacred place. The Dresden codex includes a figure signing the PSL for yes and one signing the same; one Mixtec figure makes the PSL for fire; another makes the sign for to give; and connections exist between the signs for sun, moon, accession, and water or drink. Kilroe further points out Helen Neuenswander's 1981 finding that some contemporary Mayans seem to use signs, at least in regard to lunar cycles and seasons, that bear a correspondence to ancient lunar series glyphs.

Not only do these correlations suggest a once extensive network of a widely used, visually based linguistic system, but the Mayan codices and other ancient Meso-American "writings" themselves demonstrate remarkable evidence for the extent to which a semipermanent visual recording of knowledge might have been part of the pre-contact past, with perhaps as much cultural import as the alphabetic system of recording has for contemporary cultures. As Zelia Nuttal says in the introduction to The Codex Nuttal, A Picture Manuscript from Ancient Mexico, "Ancient Mexican screenfolds are remarkably versatile as forms of information storage. It is possible to view several pages simultaneously and even to consult the obverse at the same time as the reverse. Clearly, the screenfold format was devised as a solution to the need of non-Western, non-lineal patterns of thought" (O'Neill et al., n.d.). These once plentiful codices were stored in vast repositories, but only a few were saved by Catholic monks and smuggled to Europe, escaping burning by the other Spaniards.

Due to the nature of their complexity, however, anything included here about the scope of Meso-American writing systems must be hugely oversimplified; an overview of these systems is necessary to understanding the history of the visual recording of thought in the Americas. Ancient writings—almost twenty of which are in the form of the folding screen books and others of which appear on walls, on vases, on individual sheets, and on a variety of other artifacts—are extant from several cultures: Mayan, Aztec (or, more properly, Mexica, pronounced Meshi-ka), Mixtec, and Zapotec. The Mayan system, though it is glyphic, is fundamentally agreed on by scholars to have developed into a phonetic system of sorts, while the Mexica, Mixtec, and Zapotec systems appear to be pictographic. These pictographic screenfolds in particular are thought to have been intended to accompany, not necessarily to replace, the spoken word, as PSL often does in contemporary Plains discourse.

A more recent sort of pictographic writing in terms of indigenous cultures can be found in the Plains ledger books. Though Plains peoples had recorded pictographs prior to this period on a variety of surfaces—notably hides, teepees, and clothing in addition to the petroglyphs—between 1860 and 1900, a number of pictographic books were created in accountants' ledger books with crayon, colored pencil, and sometimes watercolor. The books first recorded war exploits and later ceremonial information and details from daily life. The accurate accounting of war deeds was extremely important in Plains cultures, because warfare had important ceremonial implications. The ledger books continued a long tradition by the warrior/artists of the Plains. They recorded their deeds pictographically to aid in their preservation in the oral tradition of the people. An old saying goes, "The picture is the rope that ties memory solidly to the stake of truth" (Cheyenne Dog Soldiers, 1999).

One of the earliest of these books was created by the Cheyenne Dog Soldiers in the years following the Sand Creek Massacre of 1864. The book was given to the Colorado Historical Society (CHS) on November 30, 1903. Though the book originally was produced with 144 blank pages, one 114 pages remain in the book as it is. The CHS has determined that the book is the work of fourteen author artists. Several issues, including sequencing and a seemingly patterned order of blank pages, complicate interpretation for scholars. The CHS states that the largest problem, however, is that they are "severely limited by an incomplete oral tradition," a complication that arises from the fact that, again, these recordings are pictographic and meant to accompany, not replace, the oral. The pictographic method, if not the symbols themselves, is very close to that found in the codices, containing figures for both the names of the warriors whose deeds are recorded in it and for objects associated with the deeds.

Like the other media written of in this section, the Plains ledger books provide ample evidence of a strong visual recording tradition in the Americas, a tradition in accordance with the right-hemispheric tendencies of cultures that revered and still revere the visual receiving of knowledge. With differences in media, origin, geography, and symbol systems, pre-contact Americans found ways to write and transmit information about important historical events, territorial boundaries, sacred spaces, hunting, ceremony, trading, and their daily lives all over these lands in ways far more permanent than books.

Kimberly Roppolo


Further Reading
Cheyenne Dog Soldiers: A Courageous Warrior History. 1999. Denver: Colorado Historical Society. CDROM.; American Indian's Sacred Ground. 1991. Narrated by Cliff Robertson. Freewheelin' Films Ltd. and Wood Knapp Video.; Cantor, George. 1993. North American Indian Landmarks: A Traveler's Guide. Detroit, MI: Gale Research; Gibbon, Guy, ed. 1998. Archaeology of Prehistoric Native America: An Encyclopedia. New York: Garland Publishing.; Kilroe, Patricia. No date. "On the Probable Origins of Plains Sign Language." In Search of Language Origins: Selected Papers from the Seventh Meeting of the Language Origins Society, Dekalb, Illinois. Edited by Edward Callary. Available at: http://baserv.uci.kun.nl/~los/ Meetings/Dekalb/Accessed December 30, 2001.; O'Neill, Maureen, et al. No date. "Images in Practice." Available at: http://www.envf.port.ac.uk/ illustration/images. Accessed January 2, 2002.; Roppolo, Kimberly. 2002. "Collating Divergent Discourses: Positing the Critic as Culture-Broker in Reading Native American Texts." Ph.D. dissertation, Baylor University.
 

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