Evidence ?

f a Bistorical Signed Lingua
Franca among North American Indians I
Jeffrey Davis
Deaf Worlds Submitted 03/06105
2005 I vol 21 (3) Accepted 22111/05
Forest Books ©
ISSN 1362-3125
Aboriginal and Indigenous Sign Language; Anthropological and Historical
linguistics; Lingua Franca; Plains Indian Sign Language; Primary and
Alternate Signed Languages.
The purpose of this paper is to bring attention to the historical documentation
of sign language among North American Indians.
During the 19
and early
part of the 20
centuries, indigenous sign language appears to have been so
widespread that scholars of this time period considered it to be a lingua franca.
In other words, signing was used within and between indigenous groups, who
did not otherwise share a common spoken language. Previous documentation
was made by some of the first ethnologists and anthropologists to do field
work with Native American Indian groups (most notably, Boas 1890, Mallery
1880), before there was a decline in the use of indigenous sign language. The
previously collected documentary materials showed that sign language was
1 I am extremely grateful to numerous individuals who have inspired and encouraged me to
write this paper. Thanks to Ellis Bacon for reading and discussing the contents of this paper
on numerous occasions, and providing me a place to write up in the Great Smoky Mountains
of Tennessee. A note of gratitude goes to the Elders of the Intertribal Deaf Council for
maintaining the Circle and inviting others to participate; and especially James Woodenlegs
(Northern Cheyenne), and Melanie McKay-Cody (Cherokee 1 Choctaw) for sharing the
legacy of PSL, along with their immeasurable wisdom and wit.
48 DW(21 )3:2005 • Evidence of a Historical Signed Lingua Franca among North American Indians
used among North American Indians for a variety of discourse purposes.
Apparently, sign language was used even when deaf people were not present,
but it was also learned as a first language by some deaf members of these
native communities. This paper considers the traditional use and
contemporary status of these sign language varieties, and sheds light on this
little known and often overlooked part of Native American heritage.
Jeffrey Davis has worked as an interpreter, teacher, and researcher in the
fields of signed language linguistics and deaf studies for the past thirty years.
He holds Masters and PhD degrees in Linguistics. He began his university
teaching career in 1983 at Gallaudet University in Washington, DC, where
he taught until 1990; he then served on the faculties of the University of
Arizona (1990 - 1994) and Miami-Dade C o l l ~ g e (1994 - 2000). Davis
joined the faculty at the University of Tennessee in 2000, where he is an
Associate Professor in the Educational Interpreting Program, Department of
Theory and Practice in Teacher Education. In addition to interpreting in the
field and conducting research, he teaches ASL Linguistics and Interpretation
courses. His research involves the linguistics of ASL, interpretation and
translation processes, and the study of historical and contemporary sign
language among members of some American Indian groups.
In addition to being one of the primary languages in Deaf communities,
signed languages have been used among hearing indigenous communities
around the world as alternatives to spoken languages. Elaborated forms of
signed communication have been documented and described in some
2 Various terms are used in the literature to refer to the aboriginal peoples of the Americas.
Members of these cultural groups that many consider the First Nations, generally call
themselves American Indians. North American Indian is sometimes necessary to distinguish the
indigenous peoples of North America from those of Central and South America. The
historical linguistic documents that are the focus of the present study do not include the
signed language varieties that have been reported for Central or South American indigenous
populations. Specific tribal afTiliations and cultural-linguistic groups are acknowledged
whenever possible - e.g., Assiniboine, Blackfoot, Eastern Cherokee, Inuit, Lakota, Northern
Cheyenne, etc.
Jeffrey Davis· DW(21)3:2005 49
Aboriginal groups of Central Australia, and among Indigenous communities
of North and South Amerid.
This linguistic phenomenon also has been
evident to varying degrees within some occupational settings and monastic
traditions. The use of sign language within and between both Deaf and non-
deaf communities around the world has been documented - even when deaf
individuals were ndt present (see for example, Davis & Sup alIa 1995,
Farnell 1995, Johnson 1994, Kendon 1988, Kelly & McGregor 2003, Plann
1997, Umiker-Sebeok & Sebeok 1978). This was particularly true for the
native groups in North America that are the focus of this paper.
The North American continent was once an area of extreme linguistic
and cultural diversity with frequent contact between groups speaking
distinct and mutually unintelligible languages. Historically, signing between
and within indigenous groups of North America has been well documented.
Over many generations, signed language appears to have emerged as a way
to make communication possible between individuals speaking so many
different mother tongues. This was observed and documented in numerous
accounts including extensive fieldwork conducted by 19
ethnologists and anthropologists. Most notably, Boas 1890 and Mallery
1880, who were among the first scholars to do ethnographiC fieldwork with
native groups of the Americas. 4
Apparently, signing was so widespread among North American Indian
groups that earlier scholars considered it a lingua franca - that is, sign
language was used among numerous indigenous groups, who did not
otherwise share a common language. Papers describing the distinctive
features of the conventionalized signed language used among American
Indians were published by researchers who helped establish the discipline of
anthropological linguistics (Kroeber 1958, Voegelin 1958, West 1960).5
Reportedly, the more nomadic groups were the best signers; dialect
differences did not seriously hinder communication; signing was not limited
1 Aboriginal or indigenous are synonymous terms and refer to the original or "native"
inhabitants, before foreign immigration and colonization. In this article, these terms are used
interchangeably depending on the historical or geographical context and source being cited.
4 Boas and Mallery, helped establish and served terms as presidents of learned societies of
their time (for example, Linguistic Society of America, American Philosophical Society, and
American Anthropological Society). Mallery was credited as one of the first scholars of his
time to use the term "semiotics" (Umiker-Sebeok & Seheok 1978).
50 DW (21 )3:2005 • Evidence of a Historical Signed Lingua Franca among North American Indians
to intertribal ceremonial occasions; and also was used in storytelling and
conversation within groups speaking the same language (Mithun
1999:293). The traditional signing used by some Native American groups
appears to be distinct from American Sign Language (ASL) and is now
known primarily by hearing elders and by some Deaf members of these
groups, due in large part to its replacement by English as a lingua franca
(Farnell 1995, Mithun 1999, McKay-Cody 1997).
Aims of this Paper
The focus of this paper is the historical documentation of sign language
among North American Indians during the 19
and early part of the 20
centuries. The legacy of historical documentary materials in the form of
written texts, lexical descriptions, illustrations, and motion pictures is
critical to preservation, further scholarship, and language revitalization of
sign language among North American Indian groups. One of the chief aims
of this paper is to bring attention and provide wider access to these
documentary materials so that various levels of the languages involved can be
studied and described.
The research conducted to date and the previously collected documentary
materials indicate that sign language was used in varying degrees as an
independent communication system within most of the language families
indigenous to North America (Campbell 1997, Mithun 1999). This paper
reviews the research literature on this subject and documentary materials
from archival sources, including early anthropological linguistic descriptions.
These early ethnographic and linguistic descriptions of sign language among
American Indian groups informed the research of some of the first linguists
to study ASL (e.g., Stokoe 1960, 1972, Battison 197812003). However, the
same biases that delayed the recognition and academic acceptance of ASL as
5 Kroeber and Voegelin each also served terms as president of the Linguistic Society of
America, were considered pioneers in the field of anthropological linguistics, and developed
classification systems for the Native American languages. Kroeber's 1958 paper, followed by a
two volume PhD dissertation written by one ofVoegelin's students West (1960) were the first
to describe the conventionalized signs used by Indians in terms of distinctive features, similar
to the sounds of spoken language. The research on Indian sign language is reflected in the
seminal research of some of the first Signed language linguists (e.g., Stokoe, 1960, 1972;
Battison 1978/2003).
Jeffrey Davis· DW(21)3:2005 51
a distinct language have contributed to the oversight and neglected study of
sign language among N a t i v ~ American groups (see Baynton 1996, 2002).
There has been a general lack of understanding about the nature and structure
of indigenous signed language, even though it has been observed and reported
from the 1500s until today.
Documenting Endangered Languages
Crystal (2000) estimates that at least half of the world's six to seven thousand
currently used human languages are endangered. These endangered languages
constitute irreplaceable treasures, not only to the communities who speak or
sign them, but also for scientists and scholars. Like many American Indian
languages and cultural traditions, the sign language varieties historically used
among numerous North American indigenous groups are currentlr
endangered. Since the late 1800s, social, cultural and historical factors have
caused the number of native users of traditional American Indian sign
language to dramatically decrease. Along with the decline of native languages
and cultures, came the loss of signed language that was once a widely used
alternate to spoken language, and a traditional way of storytelling. The role
of a signed lingua franca has been replaced by English, which means that fewer
hearing Indians are learning the traditional ways of signing. The decline of sign
language among native groups also contributes to the marginalization and
isolation of tribal members who are Deaf. (See Goff-Paris & Wood 2002 and
Miller 2004 to read more about the experiences of Native American Indians
who are Deaf.)
Some researchers have suggested that the varieties of sign language used
among Native American groups are endangered (Davis in press, Farnell 1995,
Kelly & McGregor 2003, McKay-Cody 1997). Though greatly diminished,
varying degrees of sign language use among some American Indian groups has
been observed today. Several tribes incorporate the traditional sign language
as a part of language and cultural education programs. Before describing
these cases and pointing readers to the linguistic corpus that is the basis for
this paper, it will be useful to survey the literature about other cases around
the world where both deaf and hearing members used sign language and
provide historical background information about the North American native
communities where sign language traditionally has been used.
~ .
52 DW(21 )3:2005 • Evidence of a Historical Signed Lingua Franca among North American Indians
(Communities Where Everyone Signed
Historically and contemporarily, there have been indigenous communities
in which both deaf and hearing members used sign language. In addition to
the reported cases on the North American continent, signed
communication has been observed among aboriginal communities in other
geographic locations - such as parts of South America and Australia. A
similar linguistic phenomenon has been evident within some occupational
settings and monastic traditions. (For more detailed accounts of these
cases, see Branson, Miller, & Marsaja 1996, Davis & Sup all a 1995, Johnson
1994, Kendon 1988, 2002, Kelly & McGregor 2003, Plann 1997, Umiker-
Sebeok & Sebeok 1978, 1987).
The propensity for indigenous peoples to develop highly elaborated sign
c?mmunication systems as alternatives to spoken language and for a variety
of discourse purposes has been well documented. Indigenous communities
in which both deaf and hearing members use sign have been reported in
Chican, a traditional Yucatec Maya community in the state of Yucatan in
Mexico (Johnson 1994); Providence Island about 150 miles east of
Nicaragua (Washabaugh 1986); in Central America among the I{'iche' and
Kaqchikel of Guatemala, and in South America among the Urubu, a Tupi-
Guarani language community in the state of Maranhao, Brazil (Campbell
1997). Perhaps the best known sociocultural-historical account of sign use
by both deaf and hearing members of a community in North America was
the case of "English-Sign bilingualism" that existed on Martha's Vineyard,
Massachusetts from the 17th - 19
centuries (Groce 1985). Sebeok and
Umiker-Sebeok (1978) provide the most detailed account of aboriginal sign
language use in the Americas and Australia. There are critical distinctions
between these ways of signing and other kinesthetic forms of communication
- e.g., gesticulation or pantomine. Similar to studying other types of
language contact phenomenon it is useful to consider these varieties of
L signing along a continuum, or several multidimensional continua.
Kendon's Continuum
Scholars from the emergent field of gesture studies distinguish several forms
of communication that are generally called "gestures." McNeill (1992)
considered four types of gesture along a continuum of - "gesticulation,"
Jeffrey Davis· DW(21)3:2005 53
"pantomine," "emblem," and "sign language" based on Kendon (1982). Each
of these types can be furtherlanalyzed and subdivided into separate continua.
According to McNeill (2000:6) "gesticulation accompanies speech" and "is
non-conventionalized." This is distinguished from the signs in a signed
language which "like words in speech, are conventionalized, segmented, and
analytic, and possessed oflanguage properties, while they are obligatorily not
performed with speech". Thus, McNeill correlates the presence or absence
of speech with gesture, with the absence or presence of conventional
linguistic properties. "Emblems are at an intermediate position ... partly like
gesticulations, partly like signs." McNeill emphasizes "the non-linguistic
character of these gestures: the lack of a fully contrastive system and the lack
of syntactic potential" (original emphasis, 1992:6).
Kendon (1988) studied sign language as an alternate means of
communication among the hearing aborigines of Central Australia, and
proposed that the sign language of deaf communities be called "primary sign
language" and the sign language of people already competent in spoken
language be called "alternate sign language." Kendon did not study the
signing of deaf aborigines, and more studies are needed to determine the
outcomes of signed language acquisition if a deaf child is born into a situation
in which sign is used as an alternative to speech by hearing members of the
community. More recently, Senghas and Monaghan (2002:74) have
described the distinctions between "natural sign languages (i.e., sign
languages not consciously invented), artificial sign languages, gesture, and
Taxonomy of Sinned Communication
Along these lines, Davis & Supalla (1995) conducted extensive ethnographic
fieldwork in a Navajo (Dine) community where both Deaf and hearing
members used a variety of signed language distinct from ASL. This was
reminiscent of what historically had occurred on Martha's Vineyard from
the 1600s - 1900s, when most of the inhabitants of the island regardless of
hearing status reportedly used sign language (Groce 1985). Based on work
with this Navajo community, and Kendon's research with hearing aboriginal
signing communities, Davis and Supalla (1995:83-85) proposed a
"Taxonomy of Signed Communication Systems:"
54 DW(21 )3:2005 • Evidence of a Historical Signed Lingua Franca among North American Indians
1) primary signed languages that have evolved within specific
historical, social, and cultural contexts and that have been used
across generations of signers (e.g., ASL, French Sign Language,
British Sign Language, etc.)
2) alternate sign systems developed and used by individuals who are
already competent in spoken language (e.g., the highly elaborated
and complex sign system used historically by the Plains Indians of
North America)
3) home sign systems that are gestural communication systems
developed when deaf individuals are isolated from other deaf
people and need to communicate with other hearing people around
them (Frishberg 1987, Morford 1996)
4) gestures that accompany spoken language discourse (Kendon
2004, McNeill 2000).
Davis and Supalla noted some overlap between these categories. For
example, the "alternate sign systems" used by hearing Indians became a
"primary signed language" when acquired natively by deaf The
linguistic evidence suggests that "alternate signs" are used to varying degrees
of proficiency ranging from signs that accompany speech, to signing without
speech, to signing that functions similarly to "primary signed language."
Again it should be emphasized that, like other cases of linguistic variation,
these "ways of signing" are best considered according to a theoretical
framework of multidimensional continua.
When an Alternate Sinn Lannuane becomes Primary
In a study of traditional and contemporary Plains Indian signing among
native groups, McKay-Cody (1997) found patterns consistent with those
identified earlier by Davis and Supalla (1995). McKay-Cody described what
happened when the alternate sign language traditionally used by hearing
members of the Plains cultural groups was acquired as a primary sign
language by members of the group who are deaf. The deaf members of
these native groups "seem to gain a higher level of proficiency" when
compared to members who are hearing (1997: 50). These findings suggest
that the alternate sign language becomes linguistically enriched when
Jeffrey Davis' DW(21)3:2005 55
learned as a primary language by members of these native communities who
are deaf.
The research evidence from these studies (Davis & Supalla 1995, McKay-
Cody 1997) suggested that "alternate signs" are used to varying of
proficiency ranging from signs that accompany speech, signing without
speech, and signing that· functions similar to the "primary signed languages" of
Deaf communities - especially when used cross-generationally within a
linguistic community for a variety of discourse purposes. Another distinction
is that primary sign systems are developed, acquired, and used by deaf people
as a first language, whereas alternate sign systems are developed, transmitted,
and used by hearing individuals already competent in a spoken language. In
contrast to primary sign systems that are used across a wide range of functions
and domains, alternate sign systems may have more restricted functions and
limited domains of use. Despite these differences, both primary and alternate
sign systems do nonetheless share some important linguistic properties - e. g.,
both systems are rule-governed and conventionalized (Umiker-Sebeok &
Sebeok 1978, Voegelin 1958, West 1960).
Further data-driven and comparative research of the development and
use of sign language within native communities, and between deaf and
hearing individuals from these groups is needed.
The Linguistic and Cultural Diversity of Native North America
Much has been written about the consequential clash of cultures that occurred
follOwing massive European immigration and colonization of the Americas (or
'invasion' as it came to be considered by the Indians). Previously, the North
American continent was an area of extreme linguistic and cultural diversity
with hundreds of distinct and mutually unintelligible languages spoken among
the native populations. Mithun (1999: 1) points out that "while the languages
of Europe are classified into just three families, Indo-European, Finno-Ugric,
and Basque, those of North America constitute over SO." Goddard (1979,
1996) and Wurtzburg & Campbell (1995) have published papers about the role
served by signed languages and some spoken native languages as lingua francas,
and have discussed the pidgins, trade languages and "mixed" systems used
among Native American groups. Each of these topics warrant further
investigation, but are beyond the scope of the present paper.
56 OW (21 )3:2005 • Evidence of a Historical Signed Lingua Franca among North American Indians
Based on the major published literature (e.g. Campbell 1997, Mithun
1999) this paper aims to provide an interdisciplinary and international
audience with a broad introduction to the historical linguistic contexts,
geographic locations, cultural areas, and native groups where sign language
traditionally and contemporarily has emerged. This includes a review of the
previous research literature on this subject and a survey of the extensive
documentary materials from archival sources, including early
anthropological linguistic descriptions. These documentary materials and
previously published descriptions show that sign language was used in
varying degrees as an independent communication system within most of
the language families indigenous to North America (Kroeber 1958, Voegelin
1958, West 1960).
The Earliest Historical Accounts
From the 16
to the 19
centuries, numerous descriptive accounts of
American Indians signing were written by early European explorers who
spent years in the area and colonizers who settled in North America
(Mithun 1999). The earliest known descriptions of the Indians signing come
from the 1527 Spanish expedition to Florida and were written by Alvar
Nunez Cabeza de Vaca, who reported numerous occasions of native groups
signing with each other. Pedro de Castenenda made similar descriptions
during the Coronado expedition of 1541-42, and subsequent reports
continued into the 18
century (Wurtzburg & Campbell 1995).
In earlier times, the varieties of indigenous sign language specific to
North America were named in various ways - e.g., Plains Indian Sign
Language, Indian Sign Language, The Sign Language, etc. "Hand talk" was
the way that some American Indian groups commonly referred to sign
language (Tomkins 1926). A generally accepted hypothesis among scholars
(cf. Goddard 1979, Taylor 1978, Wurtzburg & Campbell 1995) is that sign
language among native groups originated and spread from the Gulf Coast
region, and became the intertribal lingua franca of the Great Plains cultural
areas, and spread throughout the northwest territories of the u.S. and
JcffrcyOavis·OW(21)3:2005 57
Plains Indian Sign Language
Historically, sign language u.e in varying degrees has been dqcumented
among the members from one dozen distinct North American language
families (Clark 1885, Scott 1934, Kroeber 1958, Mallery 1880, Voegelin
1958, West 1960). The best documented cases involved members of the
Plains Indian cultural and linguistic groups. Generally, twelve major
geographic cultural areas of Native North America have been identified in
the literature with the Plains cultural area centrally located to all of these
(cf. Campbell 1997, Mithun 1999). Waldman (2000: 32 - 33) points out
that the modern cultural areas "are not finite and absolute boundaries, but
_ simply helpful educational devices" and "that tribal territories were often
vague and changing, with great movement among the tribes and the passing
of cultural traits from one area to the next; and that people of the same
language family sometimes lived in different cultural areas, even in some
instances at opposite ends of the continent."
The Great Plains cultural area was an enormous geographic expanse that
stretched north to south for more than two thousand miles from the North
Saskatchewan River in Canada to the Rio Grande in Mexico. The east-west
boundaries were approximately the Mississippi-Missouri valleys and the
foothills of the Rocky Mountains and encompassed an area of some one
million Isquare miles. The following map illustrates the major cultural areas
of native North America referenced in this paper.
These culture areas show the major geographic areas where native groups
shared a similar culture and history. These geographic boundaries are based
on numerous sociQ-cultural, linguistic and historical variables; and do not
imply that there are only a few sharp distinct ways of life in the continent. As
stated in the Handbook if North American Indians 4: viii (1988) "in reality, each
group exhibits a unique combination of particular cultural features, while all
neighboring peoples are always similar in some ways and dissimilar in others."
Traditionally, Plains Indian Sign Language (PSL, hereafter) is used within
the Plains cultural and linguistic groups of the USA and Canada (Gordon
2005). Previously documented at every level of social interaction, PSL was
used as a widespread medium of communication between members from
distinct language groups. Although greatly diminished from its widespread
use across the Great Plains in former times, PSL has not vanished. According
58 DW(21 )3:2005 • Evidence of a Historical Signed Lingua Franca among North American Indians
Source: Culture Areas of North America, Handbook of North
American Indians 4: ix (W.E. Washburn, ed. 1988). Courtesy of the
Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC.
to Ethnologue: Languages if the World, 15
Edition (Gordon 2005), PSL is
considered distinct from ASL that is used in Deaf communities of the USA
and Canada. Today, PSL is used within some native groups in storytelling,
rituals, legends, prayers, and by American Indians who are deaf.
Jeffrey Davis' DW(21)3:2005 59
Previous Linauistic Description and Ethnoaraphic Documentation
Early anthropological linguis_ic field research indicates that sign language
was used in varying degrees as an independent communication system
within most of the language families of native North America (Kroeber
1958, Voegelin 1958, West 1960). Kroeber, Voegelin, and West were the
first scholars to desGribe the distinctive features of the Plains Indian sign
lexicon in terms of shapes of the hand(s), the areas in which a gesture is
made (points of articulation), and the direction and nature of motion
involved. Handshape features were described as open, closed, fingers
extended, straight, curved, etc. Different points on the body were
considered places of articulation. The movement patterns of the hands were
described in detail (e.g. up, down, left, right, repeated, straight lines,
curves, circles, etc.) and included one hand acting alone, one stationary and
the other active, with both hands moving parallel or interacting.
Voegelin and West also developed an elaborate transcription system and
"phonemic-like" inventory for PSL. This remains in dissertation form, but
represents a substantive contribution to the study of signed languages. In
addition to the structural properties and production of sign, these early
anthropological linguists carefully examined the lexicon, semantics, and
possible origins of the system. Additional linguistic descriptions are long
overdue. ISince West's dissertation, there has been only one published linguistic
analysis of American Indian Sign language (Newell 1981). Newell provided a
stratificational description ofPSL, and supported Kroeber's earlier observation
that "whereas writing systems such as Chinese or Hieroglyphics are alternate
expression systems of a single communication system, sign language is an
independent communication system in its own right" (1981: 189). (See West
1960, Mithun 1999, and Newell 1981 for further linguistic descriptions).
The Lanauaae Corpus
A corpus of PSL documentary materials forIps the basis for the linguistic
descriptions presented in this paper. Documentary materials retrieved from
archival sources reveal that regardless of hearing status, signing was used by
members from approxjmately thirty-seven distinct American Indian cultural
and linguistic groups (Davis, in press, McKay-Cody 1997, Minthun 1999,
Umiker-Sebeok & Sebeok 1978). Certainly signing may have been used by
60 DW(21 )3:2005 • Evidence of a Historical Signed Lingua Franca among North American Indians
even more groups than these, but at least this many cases were historically
documented. By the turn of the 20
century, however, a dramatic decline in
sign language use among native groups was evident, largely due to its
replacement by English as a lingua franca.
Education Policy and the Demise of Native Language and
The documentary evidence suggests that the use of a signed lingua franca
continued well into the early 20
century. However, during the late nineteenth
and early twentieth centuries in the United States and Canada (mainly in
Northwestern and Southwestern regions) residential Indian schools were
established by state, provincial, and federal governments; and by religious.
organizations in some cases. It became common practice for Indian children
and adolescents to be systematically removed from their families and placed in
these residential educational institutions. The official educational policy during
this period was "cultural and linguistic assimilation." This translated into loss of
many native ways, including the loss of native language and culture for many
Indian children. Indian children were taught English on!Jr and in most cases
were forbidden to follow or practice their cultural traditions.
Along with the dramatic decline of native languages and cultures, came the
loss of the signed lingua franca that was once an alternative to spoken
language. There is a paradox between the linguistic and cultural outcomes of
residential Indian Schools and Schools for the Deaf that were established
during the same historical period (primarily during post Civil War
reconstruction). Ironically, residential Schools for the Deaf became a primary
means for sign language acquisition and enculturation; whereas in contrast
Indian Schools led to the tragic demise of native language and no less than
cultural genocide in many cases. (For additional socio-cultural and historical
perspectives about the historical use, or non-use of sign language for
instructional purposes, see Baynton 1996, 2002, and Plann 1997).
Lanouaoe Revitalization
Thus, a variety of social, cultural, and educational factors caused to the
indigenous population of native and secondary users of sign language to
dramatically decrease. However, as testimony to its resiliency, there is
Jeffrey Davis· DW(21)3:2005 61
evidence that PSL is still in use today among both hearing and Deaf American
Indians from various geographic locations where a signed lingua franca once
flourished (Davis in press, Farnell 1995, Kelly & McGregor 2003, McKay-
Cody 1997). The rich legacy of illustrations, descriptions, and motion pictures
that documented the varieties of sign language used among North American
Indians is essential to language revitalization. These documentary materials
make it possible for this historical sign language variety to be reintroduced to
the communities where it once thrived. For example, some of the current
activities of the Intertribal Deaf Council are conducted in traditional PSL and
the language is gradually being re-introduced to Native American Deaf
communities through these gatherings (website provided below).
The Spectrum of Discourse
An examination of the historical documentary materials show that sign
language was uS,ed for additional purposes besides as an intertribal lingua
franca between different linguistic groups or as a way to communicate with
European colonizers. For example, sign language was used within and
between American Indian groups for some of the follOWing discourse

Story-telling (including a variety of narratives and genres)
Gender and age specific activities (most documentation involved
male tribal chiefs, medicine men, and elders; however, descriptions
and illustrations of woman signing have been identified)
During times when speech was difficult or considered taboo
(during hunting activities or mourning the death of someone)
Chanting, praying, and other ritual practices.
The richest sources of these data come from archival sources; particularly
the motion pictures that were produced by Scott (1934) with support from
an Act of the U.S. Congress. These films documented chieftains and elders
from thirteen distinct spoken language groups who were communicating
with each other through sign language. Produced during the historical three
day Indian Sign Language Council (September 4 - 6, 1930), a variety of
topics was signed, including anecdotes and stories. These documentary films
62 DW (21)3: 2005 • Evidence of a Historical Signed Lingua Franca among North American Indians
show the Indian participants engaged in several types of discourse. For
example, making introductions and showing name signs for each of the tribes
represented; signing traditional cultural and medicine stories; and making
metaphorical comparisons - such as comparing the radio which the signer
called "White Man's Medicine" with the ability to communicate in dreams
which was called "Red Man's Medicine."
Scott (1934) provided the original written transcriptions and voiced
translations for the films that were produced as a result of the council
meeting. In one of the films we see that one of the Chieftains was chanting
and signing simultaneously. In studies involving other Native American
groups, speech with sign accompaniment has been observed (e.g., Farnell
1995). However, this was not a common occurrence in these films. Aside
from one chanting-signing segment, there was only one other example of a
story being told with sign and speech accompaniment. Most of the signed
discourse shown in these films was void of spoken language and mouth
Sample digitized images and link to film clips
The films show the participants engaged in lively, natural, and un-rehearsed
signed language discourse. The spontaneity and variety of discourse types
captured in these films offers the most remarkable demonstration of
American Indians using sign language. It was noteworthy that the
participants of the Indian Sign Language Council were tribal leaders, and
the largest gathering of tribal leaders to be filmed up to that date. To show
the significance of this historical gathering, a m o n u m e ~ t was erected at the
location of the Indian Sign Language Council. Each participant placed their
footprints in bronze as a permanent record of the historical gathering.
Subsequently, the National Museum of the Plains Indians was built at this
site. Table One shows digitized still images of some participants signing.
6 According to the National Multicultural Interpreting Curriculum (2001, P 27) "medicine is an
array of spiritual practices, ideas, and concepts rather than only remedies and treatments as in
western medicine." Furthermore: "Medicine men and women are viewed as the spiritual healers
and leaders of the community. They have the role not only as a doctor, but they can be the
diviner, rain-maker, prophet, priest, or chief." Medicine is anything that brings one closer to
Great Spirit, to the Divine. In this tradition, all space is sacred space. Every place on the planet
holds a specific energy connection to some living creature and is to be honored for that reason.
Jeffrey Davis· DW(21)3:2005 63
Table 1: Digitized Images of Sign Language from the Original 1930s Films
(Source: Scott 1934. Copy courtesy of the National Archives, Washington, DC)
Table 1 (Clockwise from top left) Dick Washakie, Shoshone Chief points
to his ancestral home lands; (top right) Short Face of the Piegan tribal
group, discusses hosting the Sign Language Council; (bottom right) Bitter
Root Jim representing the Flathead people, makes the traditional sign for
NATIVE AMERICAN; (bottom left) Bitter Room Jim signs NOW, marking
his turn to make introductions. [Source: Scott 1934, Courtesy of the
National Archives, Washington, DC] The author has established the
following website for readers to view sample historical illustrations (JPEG)
and some digitized films clips (QuickTime) from the corpus of PSL
documentary materials:
http:// sunsi te. u tk. edu / plainssignlanguage /
64 DW(21 )3:2005 • Evidence of a Historical Signed Lingua Franca among North American Indians
The Lexicon and Beyond
Further linguistic analysis of PSL morphology, grammar, and discourse is
currently underway. Every linguistic level of PSL needs to be considered-
the phonetic to the semiotic. This represents an enormous
undertaking and a further study of the lexicon is central to providing
accurate linguistic descriptions and translations. For example, descriptions
and illustrations of more than 8,000 lexical signs have been identified from
11 previously collected archival sources spanning a two hundred year period
(ca. 1800 - 2000). In a preliminary study, Davis (in press) compared 500
descriptions and illustrations produced during several historical time
periods from the PSL language corpus (the early 1800s, late 1800s, 1930s,
and 2002).
Considering historical change and ling4istic variation, Davis found that
approximately two-thirds of the signs from the early 1800 descriptions were
identical or similar (i.e., differing only in a single parameter - handshape,
movement, location, orientation) to the signs documented for subsequent
generations of American Indian signers (Davis in press). While these results
are preliminary and should be interpreted carefully, these findings are
consistent with those of earlier scholars (Mallery 1880, Kroeber 1958,
Voegelin 1958, West 1960) that there was an inter-tribal and
intergenerational signed language lingua franca. The evidence suggests that
PSL was the dominant sign language variety shared by the Plains
communities and was learned by other groups through language contact.
Further historical comparisons, linguistic descriptions and analyses are
currently underway.
Traditionally, the more nomadic groups of the Great Plains signed the
PSL variety - most notably, Kiowa-Tanoan, Siouan, Algonquian, and Uto-
Aztecan linguistic groups. West (1960) also identified fluent signers of the
PSL variety among groups from the Plateau area - e.g. the Nez Perce
(Sahaptian) and the Flathead (Salishan). West reported dialect differences
among these groups, but found that these did not seriously impede sign
communication. In a two volume dissertation and a series of motion picture
documentary films, West (1960) documented that signing was still
practiced, particularly on intertribal ceremonial occasions but also in
storytelling and conversation, even among speakers of the same language.
- -- ----------
Jeffrey Davis· DW(21)3:2005 65"\'
The research literature indicates that PSL varieties are distinct from the sign
language varieties used in Ndlrth American Deaf Communities - such as ASL
(see Davis & Supalla 1995, Gordon 2005, McKay-Cody 1997, Newell
1981). There also are striking similarities in linguistic structure between
PSL and ASL (e.g., marked and unmarked handshapes, symmetry and
dominance conditions, and classifier forms). Further research is needed to
determine the historical connections, similarities, and differences between
these sign language varieties.
Linking Traditional and Contemporary Use
Although greatly diminished from traditionally being used among dozens of
distinct Native American cultural groups, contemporary cases have been
documented. Several recent studies have reported that native groups of the
Plains area still use PSL, and that other groups use signs that are distinct
from PSL (Davis & Sup alIa 1995, Davis 2006, Farnell 1995, Kelly &
McGregor 2003, Mithun 1999, McKay-Cody 1997, Weatherwax 2002).
The evidence suggests that PSL was the dominant sign language variety
shared by the Plains communities and was learned by other groups through
language contact. Currently, signing has been reported within the following
seven distinct spoken language groups, representing four language families
(Algonquian, Athabaskan, Siouan, and Pueblo Isolates).
1. Assiniboine (SIOUAN)
2. Blackfoot = Blood = Pi egan (ALGIC =ALGONQUIAN)
3. Crow (SIOUAN)
4. Keresan = Keres (New Mexico Pueblo Isolates)
5. Navajo = Navaho = Dine (ATHABASKAN)
6. Northern Cheyenne (ALGIC =ALGONQUIAN)
7. Sioux = Lak(h)ota = Dakota = Nakota (SIOUAN)
These research findings suggest that the descendents of Siouan and
Algonquian groups still sign a variety of traditional PSL. Navajo and
Keresan groups appear to use a distinct form of signing, and further
research is needed to determine these differences. Most importantly, to
prevent further language loss, contemporary and historical use of these sign
66 DW(21 )3:2005 • Evidence of a Historical Signed Lingua Franca among North American Indians
language. varieties need to be documented, described, and stabilized
through language education. For example, the National Multicultural
Interpreting Project at El Paso Community College, the Intertribal Deaf
Cquncil, and the Department of Blackfoot Studies at Blackfoot Community
College have been involved in cultural education and language stabilization
Summary and Conclusions
A corpus of previously collected PSL documentary materials .from archival
sources has been the focus of this paper. These materials have been
considered in light of new discoveries and current theories from
interdisciplinary perspectives. Historically, sign language has been used by
North American Indians from dozens of different spoken language groups.
These sign language varieties have been named in different ways - e.g.,
Plains Indian Sign Language (PSL), Indian Sign Language, North American
Indian Sign Language, etc. Native members of these groups commonly
referred to sign language as "hand talk."
A I though the best documented cases involved groups from or in contact
with the Plains cultural groups, signing also was observed and documented
beyond the Great Plains area - including the Southeast, Gulf Coast,
Southwest, Plateau and Basin, Subartic, Mesoamerica, and Northeast
geographic areas. However, this does not mean that these various signed
languages were mutually intelligible. Further research is needed to
determine if these were varieties of the same signed language, or distinct
signed languages. Like other studies of language variation, these different
"ways of signing" are best considered along a continuum, or
multidimensional continua. The study of indigenous signed languages helps
broaden our understanding of these issues and raises other linguistic
questions - e.g., language attitude, contact and change.
This paper has taken a two-fold approach to the PSL language corpus
presented here. First, to provide a preliminary description of discourse
features and a comparative historical assessment of the PSL lexicon;
secondly, to make known and point others to this language corpus so that all
levels of the language can be studied and described. Documenting and
describing a language is an enormous undertaking, made urgent by the
Jeffrey Davis' DW(21)3:2005 67
endangered status of PSL in this case. The chief aim is to promote language
revitalization, and to enoourage further linguistic research of the
phonological, morphological, and grammatical characteristics of PSL and
other signed language varieties.
Two predominant themes that emerge from early descriptions of'
American Indian sign language are "universality" and "iconicity" -
theoretical issues that signed language studies continue to address today
(Armstrong, Stokoe, & Wilcox 1995). The documented cases of signed
language in various deaf and hearing communities around the world,
demonstrate the human innateness and resiliency for language. Clearly,
language is not limited to oral-auditory modalities, but expressed equally
and richly through visual and kinesthetic means. In contrast to the oral-
aural medium of spoken languages, signed languages are' visual-gestural in
nature. The use of gesture and space are exploited and become highly
conventionalized aspects of the overall linguistic system. rsign language was'
used among the Indian Nations of North America as a complementary
alternative to spoken language. Thus used from one generation to the next,
signing became linguistically enriched and conventionalized.
Great care must be taken to preserve the rich legacy of sign language
documentary materials represented in the PSL language corpus. Placing the
historical linguistic documentary materials into digitally stable and
accessible formats will promote further research, description and
translation. Developing an open source PSL digital archive will form a
significant resource for educational programs, libraries, and museums of
natural history; encourage further scholarship and language revitalization;
and provide unprecedented access for multiple users interested in studying,
understanding, preserving, and describing these and other signed language
Sign language linguistic research continues to demonstrate the human
innateness, propensity, and resiliency for language; the cognitive, social, and
communicative underpinnings for language acquisition and development;
and provides insights into the origins of human language. Moreover, PSL is
a part of the linguistic and cultural heritage of North America that should
be preserved for this and future generations. Otherwise, like so many o t h ~ r
native languages and cultures, PSL could be lost forever.
68 DW(21 )3:2005 • Evidence of a Historical Signed Lingua Franca among North American Indians
Further information about American Indian languages and cultures, Native
Americans who are Deaf, and PSL can be obtained from the following
• The Intertribal Deaf Council (IDC)
• The National Multicultural Interpreting Project at EI Paso
Community College
National Museum of the American Indian, Washington, D.C.
• Plains Indian Sign Language Digital Archive
http:// sunsite. utk.edu/plainssignlanguage1
Jeffrey Davis· DW(21)3:2005 69
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Claxton A204
The University of Tennessee
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