Sign language is just for Deaf people to communicate, right? Nope. For plenty of reasons, various forms of sign language used by hearing people have developed over the course of human history. Even in contemporary times, we create gestural communication for use when it may be impractical or impossible to communicate verbally. A baseball coach signals a runner to steal a base. A football referee uses gestures to communicate penalties. Stockbrokers on Wall Street signal to each other to indicate whether they’re selling or buying shares of stock and how many shares are being exchanged. A current project lead by Jeffrey Davis (University of Tennessee–Knoxville) and Melanie McKay-Cody (William Woods University, Missouri) is being conducted in an effort to record and preserve Native American sign languages used by a number of Plains Indian tribes. The primary function of sign language by Native Americans was for inter-tribal communication when there were great difference in the tribes’ spoken languages, although the other obvious function was for communication with Deaf tribe members, as well. This gestural communication is called Plains Indians Sign Language (PISL).
The goal of the project is to locate, interview and record video of any Native Americans who have knowledge of or use PISL. Creating an archive of this nature is extremely important because there are so few people alive who know PISL and eventually it may become an extinct form of sign language. Future researchers studying History, Anthropology, or Linguistics will be able to refer to the archives to advance knowledge and understanding of PISL. A 2009 study identified over two dozen fluent ‘hand-talkers’, the term attributed to Native American signers. An historic conference of ‘hand-talkers’ was held August 12-15 on the Northern Cheyenne reservation in Montana. This conference was the first of its kind in 80 years. In 1930, a retired Army General, Hugh Scott, convened with chiefs and elders in an effort to capture the language on film reel, which was cutting edge technology at the time. The film reels were forgotten for decades, but are now digitally preserved and available for study, thanks to Davis, who has also published a book on the subject of PISL and will be released in September.
Click HERE to view footage from the 1930 Plains Indians conference.
Click HERE to preview and pre-order Davis’ book, “Hand Talk: Sign Language Among American Indian Nations”