Who hasn’t seen an old “western” movie where the Native Americans, then called Indians, used smoke signals to warn the tribe of impending danger or the arrival of enemies. It added a colorful element to the film, but is this tradition true? Let’s find out. Apparently they were common as a form of communication at one time, although not anymore unless for ceremonial purposes as an act of recreating the past. They originally emerged from a type of crafted fire pit, which was the tribe’s version of a wood stove so to speak. Their message was not always dire, but often served to gather tribal members far and wide and to pass on any communal news.
It is a unique activity in the history of America, one that most people take for granted—the stuff of movies and old tales. We have no clue as to where and why for the most part. Lewis and Clark were the first to be confused, writing about how the Indians were setting the plains on fire. Oddly enough, these Native Americans were not the only culture to avail themselves of this fiery practice. In ancient China, soldiers stationed along the famed Great Wall would speak to one another over great distances, especially in regard to enemy attack. It seems like this is the ubiquitous message.
Bad news was not always part of the smoke signal experience for Native American tribes. They would light damp grass to begin the communication process. It could be about a whale washing on shore ready to harvest or a feast about to take place. It might signal a death. In any case, they build the fire in an elevated area to be sure that the smoke arising from the pyre would be clearly seen.
Anthropologists and cultural historians study smoke signals and have deemed it a form of human code, akin to any system where certain meanings are assigned and communicated. Generally, puffs of smoke are created using a moving blanket that manipulates the vapor in certain ways. They must be visible for a least a mile or more during transmission of a message.
Thus, smoke signals are a very early form of communication, although certainly the purpose varies culture to culture. You can make different shapes to denote numbers or words for example. While this could be a one on one form of transmittal, it is usually more widely known to a specific group of senders and receivers. Only the inner circle privy to the system would be able to interpret the specific meaning assigned. In any case, it calls attention to some matter of concern or interest for communal purposes. For example, three puffs of smoke could mean something bad has happened. One might denote all is fine like an “all clear.” Interestingly enough, the Boy Scouts of America have adopted this practice when camping. It is clearly a shout out to a venerable tradition.
The hallmark of a smoke signal is to travel a great distance in open space. It looms on the horizon, meant for special eyes. It is primitive technology to be sure, but it worked for some time going back to the ancient Greeks and Chinese. Surely Native Americans came to its use on their own, but somehow it was part of an innate experience. The key to smoke signals is to keep the message simple. It must be universal or known to everyone in the tribe. It, of course, would not be apparent to enemies or foes. As such, a great deal of cleverness imbues the process as a communication methodology. It also shows the important role of fire in a given culture.
One can create puffs with a blanket as mentioned, or even spirals. It is a sight to behold. Zigzags, parallel lines, and circles are also possible with more adept practitioners. It would certainly take some doing to learn this art today. It is said that different types of wood will create different kinds of fires, thus affecting the smoke signals needed. There is nothing quite like this form of tribal communication, apart from the written or spoken word.
Historians say that tribes would set up stations where fires were built, usually on hilltops. Fire bowls were used for convenience for the easy containment of leaves and branches. They were lined no doubt with rocks and small stones. It seems practical enough but fell out of use long ago with modernization and the arrival of Europeans. It is now part of Native American lore.