August 10, 2007
North American Indian Sign Language
Language is a systematic means of communicating by using
sounds or conventional symbols, whereas sign language is
a language consisting of hand shapes, facial expressions
and movements used as a form of communication. Although
sign language was, and still is, primarily used for
communication by the deaf community, it also holds a
history among the Native Americans of North America.
Native North American languages are considered rather
sophisticated. By the late nineteenth century
researchers concluded that over seventy different
languages existed among the various native tribes in
North America. Furthermore, there also existed a great
variety of dialects of the same language making it
extremely difficult to be fluent in numerous languages.
The wide variety of languages and dialects was a result
of natural causes, such as internal trouble, wars with
other tribes, and the segregation which takes place when
humanity is in the hunter state. Thus, after a long
period of time, articulate speech was developed,
perfected and marked by the influences of the tribes
surroundings resulting in various linguistic and
dialectic boundaries. As a result, Indian sign
language, also known as Plains Sign Language was
developed by Indian societies as a means of
communication between the tribes of American Indians who
spoke different vocal languages.
Indian sign language was used mainly by the
nomadic tribes of the Great Plaines, the land bounded by
the Mississippi on the east and the Rocky Mountains on
the west. This land was known for its famous mounted
hunters of bison, the Plains Indians, Sioux, Cheyenne,
Blackfoot and Kiowa. Indian sign language appears to
have evolved in the same way as spoken language,
progressing gradually from the representational to the
symbolic, from the picture to the symbol, but still
remaining primarily representational or ideographic.
The symbols involved usually have a clear connection
with the things they stands for: the form of an object,
the movement of an action, or the placement of this or
that. Most of the signs are made with both hands at
chest level, but preferably the right, as the left
serves mainly as an auxiliary.
Whereas the deaf community use a great deal of facial
contortion and grimace, Indian sign language seldom use
facial expressions, but maintain a composed and
dignified expression as the sign are sufficient of
themselves. Moreover, one-hand free gestures are more
numerous than two-hand ones, and evidently they are used
more frequently and importantly in connected discourse.
Apart from being a connecting form of communication
between tribes, Indian sign language was used for
additional purposes. For example, during powwows, the
chiefs used sign language to hold the attention of their
listeners, who had to follow their most subtle gestures
in order to be able to answer. In addition, Indian sign
language was also indispensable on the warpath, where
the success of a given maneuver depended on silence, and
during the bison hunt, as it enabled different tribes to
keep close to the herd and still be able to communicate
with one another. Today, many individuals from
different backgrounds use Indian sign language, but the
first whites to use Indian sign language were evidently
the trappers known as Mountain Men, the missionaries,
and men known as scouts who served as guides and
interpreters for the army.
Indian sign language is so faithful to nature and so
natural in its expressions that it is likely that it
will never die. It has a practical utility, and should
not be looked upon merely as a repetition of motions to
be memorized from a limited list, but as a cultivated
art, founded upon principles which can be readily
applied by travelers. Indian sign language may be used
to advantage at a distance, which the eye can reach but
not the ear, and still more frequently when silence or
secrecy is desired.
Clark, W. (1885). Indian Sign
Language. Philadelphia: L. R. Hamersly & Co.
Fronval, George & Daniel Dubois.
(1985). Indian Signals and Sign Language. New
York: Bonanza Books.
Tomkins, William. (1969).
Indian Sign Language. New York: Dover