Language in the Kodiak Archipelago may have included a visual element at different points in history. That includes sign language and symbols – or pictographs – both of which can be traced back to two men in the 19th century, a medical doctor and his Kodiak-born source.
The acquaintance led to a couple of articles about nonverbal language, one which inspired a chapter in the Alutiiq Museum’s recently published book about graphic arts.
KMXT stopped by the Alutiiq Museum to talk about the two men with the museum’s executive director.
April Laktonen Counceller takes direction from a text on her laptop and lightly snaps her fingers to do the sign for boiling water.
She tries out a few different signs, including the one for shaman and dog.
Counceller is pretty excited about finding written evidence of sign language being used in the Kodiak area.
“It’s just incredibly different and cool that we had this here.”
The main and only source is doctor-turned-anthropologist W.J. Hoffman, who met an Alutiiq man, Vladimir Naumoff in San Francisco in the 1880s.
Naumoff had worked in several trade and retail businesses in his life. Counceller says Naumoff had traveled with his father, a Russian-American Company officer and learned multiple languages in addition to ways of communicating them.
She says Naumoff was working with the Alaska Commercial Company when he and Hoffman met in California, and Hoffman used him as his source on his article about sign language.
“This documentation is really the only one that I’ve ever seen for [the] northwest coast. If other people have other documents from the Tlingit region or from Washington State or northern California, to be able to compare this document to any of those to see really how similar they are or maybe the variation in signs across the geography, that would be a really interesting thing to learn.”
Sign language may have been a way to bridge language barriers across multiple regions and cultures.
“The signs were used primarily to facilitate trade and when people were traveling and so the original use of this type of sign language was for facilitating trade and communication among travelers.”
Counceller says other Native American groups used sign language, including Plains Tribes, but she hadn’t read about sign language in the Kodiak area until seeing Hoffman’s document about five years ago.
Hoffman also used Naumoff as a source for another article. About pictographs. That’s the text Counceller says she cited for a chapter she wrote in the Alutiiq Museum’s new book on graphic arts.
The pictographs include a stick figure representing a hunter and a circle representing an island, for example.
Counceller says one way Alutiiq people might have used pictographs was to tell visitors they had gone on a trip.
“They would have made a pictograph message that would have been placed outside of their home with the end of the board – like, let’s say it’s on a little plank – the end of that board would be angled in the direction that that person went.”
When it comes to historical communication in the Kodiak area, Counceller also mentions things like behavior and clothing, in addition to pictographs and sign language.
“And so when we think about our ancestors and how they communicated, we need to think about all of those types of literacy, not just the way that they spoke orally to each other.”
Counceller says pictographs were probably common on the island pre-contact, before the influence of Western writing systems.
As for sign language, she says there was likely little awareness that it could be lost, and so little attempt to preserve it as you would an oral language.