Native American Smoke Signals

Published on May 14, 2013 by Casey

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Smoke Signals by Deskridge

Native American Culture – Smoke Signals

Description and Definition of Smoke Signals: Smoke Signals were used by many cultures including the Native American Indians as a means to quickly communicate visual messages over long distances. The simple messages sent via these signals were conveyed by means of columns or intermittent puffs or clouds of smoke.

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Materials required to send Smoke Signals

Native American Indian tribes had their own systems of Making Fire. Once a fire had been made smoke could be produced The fire gave off smoke consisting of visible gases and fine particles given off by burning material. A wet blanket was used to cover the fire and when released produced a tower of black smoke that could be seen for miles.

System for sending Smoke Signals

The system used by Native American Indians for sending smoke signals was as follows:
The first requirement was to select an area to set up a smoke signal system that was visible from a great distance

  • Fuel was chosen for the fire that gave a dense, dark smoke
  • Native Americans discovered that some materials were than others in producing thick, dense, dark smoke to create highly visible smoke signals
  • Virtually all solid materials emit a white “smoke” when first heated which is is mostly moisture. As a material dries out the color of the smoke changes. Wood materials produce a tan or brown color. The addition of other materials such damp leaves or grass encouraged thick smoke and other materials such as oil and animal dung might produce a darker smoke
  • A blanket was so held as to prevent the smoke rising. When a lot of smoke had been imprisoned beneath it, the blanket was raised so as to let it escape
  • It was then lowered, held, and raised again causing a new puff or cloud
  • These puffs of smoke rose and according to their number the message to be sent could be varied.

Types of Messages sent by Smoke Signals

The Native Americans used smoke signals to communicate messages over long distances to a number of people. The types of messages sent by these signals were:

  • Warnings and Alarms: Smoke Signals that signified a warning such as sickness or the approach of an enemy or a stranger and even the number of guns that they carried
  • Help Needed: Smoke Signals that signified that reinforcements were needed in a battle
  • News: Smoke Signals that signified a battle had been won or lost and even the number of scalps that had been taken or the number of horses that had been won in battle. Pre-arranged signals might also be used to convey the death of a chief or an important birth

In order to send smoke signals over greater distances, some tribes would set up a chain of fires to relay messages from one location to the next. More than one fire and set of signals could also be used. An example of this a single fire was built first with one smoke signal that indicated success in battle. Then a number of smaller fires, in a line side by side, might indicate the number of scalps and horses taken. Smoke signals were sent by day and fires conveyed signals at night.

Meanings of Smoke Signals

The meanings of smoke signals varied. In general, there was not one set meaning as enemy tribes would also be able to read the messages that were being sent. if there were no enemies who could use the messages to their advantage then a simple code could be generally used. The simple code used for commonly understood smoke signals was:

  • The Meaning of one puff of smoke meant ATTENTION.
  • The Meaning of Two puffs of smoke signalled ALL’S WELL
  • The Meaning of Three puffs of smoke, or three fires in a row, signalled DANGER, TROUBLE OR A CALL FOR HELP

The meanings of the smoke signals that needed to be kept secret in times of battles or Indian tribe warfare were pre-arranged, so only the sender and the recipient would understand the meaning of the signals.

Smoke Signals and other Non-verbal forms of Communication

The meanings of smoke signals was just one of the forms of non-verbal communication methods used by Native American Indians. The different types of non-verbal communication methods were:

  • Smoke Signals
  • Fire signals that were used at night
  • War paint
  • Horse War Paint
  • Native American Sign Language
  • Mirrors – messages could be sent over long distances using sunlight to direct the flashes
  • Piles of stones could be used to convey messages
  • Picture messages on trees, skins, rocks using Native American Symbols

Source: warpaths2peacepipes Unabridged
Based on the collective work of, © 2015 Native American Encyclopedia.
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"Native American Smoke Signals" Unabridged. Native American Encyclopedia 29 Jan. 2015. <>.

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