Nevertheless, natives were certainly able to communicate by means of pictures. Decoration of the tipi to recount a family’s history does not seem to have been common in this area, and, since the Indians very early took to white man’s clothing, neither was the painting of robes to record a man’s exploits.
Indians generally seemed to have an aptitude for drawing, probably due to their continual training in close observation, aided by a phenomenal memory for things and places once seen. It is said that if an Indian passed a place or travelled a trail just once, twenty years later he could draw an illustrated map that would enable a stranger to come out within a short distance of the destination. By means of pictures on bark he could leave detailed messages for friends who were following.
Mr. Martin Hunter related a rather surprising fact about the Sikanni whom he had been friends with near Fort Nelson before schools or missions were brought to them. It was their custom to leave simple written messages at camping spots, forks on the trail or in a trapper’s cabin where they had stayed overnight. What is surprising is that they had never been to school! They had taught themselves the letters, Mr. Hunter believes, from the labels of the canned goods they got from traders!
In Johnny Chipesia’s tales to Dr. Ridington, he recounted that when the traders first introduced canned goods, the Indians did not know how to order more of the same. Sensibly, at first they brought the empty cans back. However, they seem to have learned the relation of sounds to symbols very easily. Mr. Hunter is positive that there had been no formal teaching.
The Indian was much accustomed to silent meditation. In fact, periodically he sought it, hoping for a message, an omen, or a new song. He believed implicitly that he received messages when he was in harmony with his surroundings. This was a spiritual state of mind which no other Indian would interrupt.
To a white man waiting for a decision, such silent waiting was irksome. But to those who learned to get along with Indians understood that to break the silence – to speak first – was intolerable bad manners.
Pioneers were often puzzled when friendly Indians would come to visit them. They sat in silence until they took an equally silent departure. White people are convinced that to appear friendly we musttalk. The art of small talk is a social necessity. Not so to the Indian. “Even quite young children can turn themselves off from too much talking,” said a white teacher when integrated classes were first begun on one of our local reserves. “Even primary children would not tolerate long or unnecessary explanations. When they had heard enough, they simply put their heads down on their desks and ‘turned a deaf ear’.” That was “non-verbal communication!”