Earlier this month, fluent sign-talkers from tribes across Montana and surrounding states gathered on the Northern Cheyenne Reservation for the first Plains Indian sign language conference in 80 years.
The conference, which is funded by the National Science Foundation, began with field work last summer in Montana to search for fluent Plains Indian sign-talkers.
Jeffery Davis, a linguist at the University of Tennessee, and Melanie McKay-Cody, a Chickamauga Cherokee/Choctaw from William Woods University in Missouri, identified more than two dozen sign-talkers among the various tribes. The group includes several tribal members who are deaf.
Plains Indian Sign Language (PISL) is a sign language once shared among 40 different Native American groups on the Great Plains of North America, one of several Native American Indian Sign Language varieties. In 1885, it was estimated that there were over 110,000 “sign-talking Indians,” including Blackfoot, Cheyenne, Sioux, Kiowa and Arapaho. PISL was used in the lands where the buffalo once roamed, across an area of over 1 million square miles (2.6 million square kilometers).
William Philo Clark, who documented the sign language in 1885, “was strongly impressed with its value and beauty.” He took his first lessons in the language “on the march, by their camp-fires at night, and in the early gray of morning, just before charging down on a hostile Indian village.”
At the conference, linguistic exchange was strictly peaceful. As fluent tribal elders and members of the deaf community used the signs during the conference, linguists planned to study it, record it and preserve it for future generations. Often deaf members of these tribes learn the ancient signs from relatives before learning American sign.
“The structure and grammar of sign language must have evolved over hundreds of years, said Davis…. After 15 years of doing research comparing Plains Indian sign language to American Sign Language, Davis is convinced that much of American Sign Language came from the Indian hand talk.
“By bringing together the most fluent sign-talkers in Busby, the [research] team wanted to re-create some of the experiences of a similar conference gathering in 1930. At that sign language gathering, chiefs and elders from a dozen Indian nations were filmed at Browning as they told stories using sign language.
“Davis, who found the films in the vaults of the National Anthropological Archives, said they contain a wealth of information for linguists.” Here’s one of the clips, a tribal glossary for all you Long Knives looking to brush up. (Go figure that the sign for white guys would be an upward thrusting bayonet!)