of portrait of Shoshoni Chief Tendoi Demonstrating Sign Language.
(Photo by Charles M. Bell, circa 1880, courtesy National Anthropological
Archives, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.)
In early September 1930, the Blackfeet Nation of Montana hosted
a historic Indian Sign Language Grand Council, gathering leaders
of a dozen North American Nations and language groups.
The three-day council held was organized by Hugh L. Scott, a
77-year-old U.S. Army General who had spent a good portion of his
career in the American West, where he observed and learned what
users called Hand Talk, and what is today more broadly known as
Plains Indian Sign Language (PISL). With $5,000 in federal funding,
Scott filmed the proceedings and hoped to produce a film dictionary
of more than 1,300 signs. He died before he could finish the project.
Scott's films disappeared into the National Archives. Recently
rediscovered, they are an important resource for those looking to
Among them is Ron Garritson, who identifies himself as being
of Cree, Cherokee and European heritage. He was raised in Billings,
Montana, near the Crow Nation.
"I learned how to speak Crow to a degree, and I was really interested
in the sign language," he said. "I saw it being used by the Elders,
and I thought it was a beautiful form of communication. And so I
started asking questions."
Garritson studied Scott's films, along with works by other ethnographers
and now has a vocabulary of about 1,700 signs. He conducts workshops
and classes across Montana, in an effort to preserve and spread
sign language and native history.
map shows location of tribes, cultural areas and language
groups prior to European contact.
Prior to contact with Europeans, North American Native peoples
were not a unified culture, but hundreds of different cultures and
tribes, each with its own political organization, belief system
and language. When speakers of one language met those of another,
whether in trade, councils or conflict, they communicated in the
lingua franca of Hand Talk.
Scholars dispute exactly when, in their 30,000-year history
in North America, tribes developed sign language. It was observed
among Florida tribes by 16th Century Spanish colonizers.
"Coronado, as he documented in his journals in 1540, was in
Texas and met the Comanche," said Garritson. "He documented that
the Comanches made themselves so well-understood with the use of
sign talk that there was almost no need for an interpreter. It was
that easy to use and easy to understand."
While each tribe had its own dialect, tribes were able to communicate
easily. Though universal in North America, Hand Talk was more prominent
among the nomadic Plains Nations.
"There were fewer linguistic groups east of the Mississippi
River," said Garritson. "They were mostly woodland tribes, living
in permanent villages and were familiar with each other's languages.
They still used sign language to an extent, but not like it was
used out here."
Hand Talk was also the first language of deaf Natives.
Erasing a culture
By the late 1800s, tens of thousands of Native Americans still
used Hand Talk. That changed when the federal government instituted
a policy designed to "civilize" tribal people.
portrait of Chiricahua Apache youths four months after arriving
at the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Carlisle, Pennsylvania.
Children were removed from their families and sent to government-run
boarding schools, where they were forbidden to speak their own languages
or practice their own spiritual beliefs. Native Deaf children were
sent to deaf residential schools, where they were taught to use
American Sign Language (ASL).
Research has shown that Hand Talk is still being used by a small
number of deaf and hearing descendants of the Plains Indian cultures.
"Hand Talk is endangered and dying quickly," said Melanie McKay-Cody,
of Cherokee descent, an expert in anthropological linguistics.
McKay-Cody is the first deaf researcher to specialize in North
American Hand Talk and today works with tribes to help them preserve
their signed languages. She is pushing for PISL to be incorporated
into mainstream education of the deaf.
"Easier than hollering"
Lanny Real Bird, a Hidatsa Crow, grew up in a household where
PISL was used.
"My grandmother had hearing loss," he said. "I'd see my father
signing with her in the Plains Indian Sign Language. I picked up
basic sign language, enough to say, 'Yes' or 'No,' 'I'm hungry."
As a boy, he played with a young relative who was deaf, who
helped expand his signing vocabulary.
Real Bird has worked for 20 years helping tribes preserve their
languages, both spoken and signed, and has developed a 200-sign
PISL course, which he teaches at community schools and workshops
across the Plains states.
"Right now we're probably at the basic communications phase,"
he said. "So in order to expand, we have to go to another level,
from listening to understanding to rudimentary communicating to
fluency and literacy."
Real Bird said it took nearly a decade to convince school systems
to incorporate PISL into general language instruction.
"Later this month, students of the of the Crow Reservation's
Wyola Elementary School will be showcased at the annual Montana
Indian Education Conference," he said.
There, they will demonstrate their Crow language skills, both
spoken and signed.