Hand Talkers

Plains Indian Sign Language, American Sign Language, and the usage of nonverbal communication in Native American literature

I’m currently taking a class at Wofford on Native American Lit and noticed the use of sign language in a book about Indian baseball–Miko Kings by LeAnne Howe. But what struck me is that the players were communicating more than just instructions–something we as contemporary Americans understand as part of the game–but they were communicating to members of the community outside the diamond as well. They were speaking their own language.

As a learner of American Sign Language (ASL), I decided to investigate what I could about both languages and their interactions with each other, if they existed. What I found was that ASL is more French than I thought, and that Plains Indian Sign Language (PISL) was probably better preserved, accepted as part of culture, and studied than ASL. The story of “hand talking” was much different than I expected. Here’s what I found.

Let’s start with the history of American Sign Language (ASL):

During the nineteenth century, the use of hand gestures for communication by deaf people was called manualism, and deaf Frenchman Laurent Clerc established the language of ASL in the United States by establishing the first permanent deaf school in Hartford, Connecticut, in 1817 (Greenwald 558). French Sign Language (LSF) and ASL are undeniably linked, with certain sign families and gestures meaning the same thing in spoken English and French (Shaw and Delaporte).

Deaf linguistics were preserved in African American communities over time, but throughout American sign language was stigmatized like most foreign languages associated with immigrants, and “it was deemed a marginal language used by an inferior race… and suppressed in schools for whites,” though it thrived and was preserved in African American communities (558). Because of ASL’s “foreign” stigma, oralism (forcing deaf people to speak and read lips without the assistance of sign) prevailed in schools until the 1960s, when ASL was recognized as a legitimate language. The history of this shift is documented in books like Deaf Like Me, celebrating the acceptance of sign language as a way to allow deaf people to function more easily in society and create a vibrant culture of their own. “Yet the trends of mainstreaming, widespread use of technology, and the Americans with Disabilities Act have all contributed to the increasing cultural and linguistic isolation of deaf Americans,” argues Greenwald (559). At the very least, this shift has given ASL the space to exist, and for users to thrive. It will be interesting to follow this issue into the future.

The visual and tactile nature of the language prevented records of the language and its etymology until the first two decades of the 20th century, and written descriptions include personal variances and dialects—regionalism is common within the language, and makes proper documentation difficult. Today, ASL is seen as one of the best options for the success, happiness and achievement of deaf persons and is taught widely in schools, but also as a foreign language for hearing students who wish to learn to sign. Interpreter programs around the country certify hearing people to interpret for the deaf in school, medical, legal and social settings.

tumblr_lnhm7tLzBx1qjk4xzASL also appears in some instances of pop culture: the Freeform television series “Switched at Birth” features both deaf and hearing actors and utilizes subtitles for signing conversations. Some episodes are entirely silent–entirely in ASL, and much of the series involves hearing characters learning ASL.

[Shameless plug: “Switched at Birth” is on Netflix and it definitely helped me learn to read ASL. Check it out!]

But what about the history of native sign languages?

Colonists in the New World observed Native Americans using gestures to communicate, especially between tribes that spoke different languages. The most widely used variety of Native American sign language is known as Plains Indian Sign Language (PISL), but is an endangered language (Indian Country Media Network).

But there are even older instances of European contact with Native signing:

“More than three centuries before U.S. officials ventured into the Far West, early modern Europeans had already come into close contact with Indian signs and complex indigenous systems of visual-kinetic communication in the context of the early colonization of the Americas. Their records of some of the nonverbal indigenous practices they witnessed strikingly resemble nineteenth-century observations of PISL and its role as an ‘alternate sign system’ being used alongside speech in hearing societies. A French Jesuit conducting a mission in seventeenth-century Guiana, for instance, noted that the Galibi Indians (modern Kali’na) ‘also use gestures to express what they want to say, treating and conferring with each other, without their being deaf and mute, however; which they particularly do to designate numbers, despite the fact that there are words to express several of them’” (Carayon).

These sign language systems, Carayon writes, functioned as an “internal auxiliary language”—a lingua franca shared by two or more distinct linguistic groups, allowing communication across language barriers. This this the language that explorers and colonists could have observed across the New World, utilized by multiple tribes. PISL, as a lingua franca, “also functioned as an ‘alternate sign system,’ by which is meant a separate, internal language that is completely autonomous from speech and is used by speaking-hearing communities who share the same dialect” (Carayon).

But were PISL and ASL ever studied together? Yes. About that…

With “decidedly evolutionist” ideas about sign languages’ inferiority to spoken languages, experiments were conducted comparing indigenous sign language to ASL in 1880. Lieutenant-Colonel Garrick Mallery brough seven Ute men to the National Deaf-Mute College in Washington, D.C., now called Gallaudet University (a well-established school for the deaf that’s been around since 1864). For this experiment, researchers observed what happened when deaf students told the Ute men scripted stories using ASL… despite a few inaccuracies and impasses in the translation process, most of which were attributed to cultural differences rather than communicative deficiencies, the men were able to understand the ASL.

But what at first seemed like an exciting revelation would result in some dangerous understandings of nonverbal communication, Carayon says. “Mallery, the foremost specialist of the time in the study of Indian signs, used the case study to argue that ‘what is called the sign language of Indians is not, properly speaking, one language, but … it and the gesture systems of deaf-mutes and of all peoples constitute together one language—the gesture speech of mankind—of which each system is a dialect’” (Carayon). Though the “gesture speech of mankind” is a phrase now used to praise sign language, the sentiment behind this statement is problematic for several reasons: “In this statement, Mallery captured the two most prominent and problematic concepts attached to the observation of American Indian sign languages in the modern era: the question of whether manual languages had ‘universal’ properties that could transcend cultural, geographical, and linguistic barriers, and the misguided conceptual association of Indian signs with the various nationally based sign languages of deaf communities in the industrialized Western world” (Carayon).

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Photo from http://www.inquiry.net/outdoor/native/sign/sentences.htm

N.B.: if we look at the featured image at the top of this blog post and reposted above, we see that sentence structure in indigenous sign language is different from the sentence structure we recognize as English. The sentence structure found in Indian sign language as described here is very similar to ASL sentence structures I have learned in the past–it does not surprise me that the experiment in 1880 went well. Those who sign are very good at understanding context and conveying meaning, even to those who do not speak the language, I’ve found.

Bringing PISL back

In 1930 the Indian Sign Language Grand Council was created as part of General Hugh Scott’s preservation efforts to preserve Plains Indian Sign Language, and was the largest meeting of elders and chiefs ever filmed. The films were lost “in the dust of the Great Depression and the unconcern of anthropology’s mainstream until Jeffery Davis, an “interpreter, teacher and researcher in the field of sign language/deaf studies, was stranded overnight in the Archives during a snowstorm in the early 1990s. Members of a Ken Burns documentary crew, also stuck overnight, had noticed the films and told Davis about them” (Hughes). The films were restored and posted online, however the link is too old to function.

The first Indian sign language conference in 80 years was held in August of 2010, in an attempt to “preserve Indian Sign Language through the cooperation of sign language linguists with deaf and hearing members of the North American Indian signing communities through research, video recording and a dictionary” (Hughes). There has been a revival of Native language learning in an effort to preserve its usage, but it is a language that has been described as nearly extinct–most fluent hand talkers are dying without passing on fluency to younger generations. Nevertheless, there are strong programs developing across the nation, such as the Crow Agency’s sign language learning program at Little Big Horn College, pictured below.

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Image screenshot from https://indiancountrymedianetwork.com/education/native-education/sign-languages-a-forgotten-part-of-tribal-cultures/

PISL in film:

More attention is being paid to PISL in the arts, particularly in Native creative circles. Below is a promotional video for a short film screened in March of 2016 at INDIgenesis, a Native Film Series presented by the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis. “Directed by Missy Whiteman, this sci-fi docu-narrative follows Charlie, who is forced to choose between joining a Native street gang or going on an epic pilgrimage. Featuring an entirely Native American cast, the film was shot in the Minneapolis neighborhoods of Phillips and Little Earth. ‘The Coyote Way: Going Back Home’ features Native American Sign Language and there is no verbal dialogue (“7 Great Movie Trailers to watch from the New Native Film Program: INDIgenesis”).

Meanwhile, in American pop culture, this is how Native American nonverbal communication is portrayed:

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GIF source

I think it’s safe to say that most Americans could do with a little education on both ASL and PISL; primarily, we need to recognize the inherent values of these languages and what they can do for the speakers, hearing or deaf. Hand talking is an art of its own kind, and one that should be appreciated rather than seen as inferior.

Nonverbal communication in Native American Lit:

Native American Lit: literature written by Native Americans… and also the name of the class I’m taking. I’ve gotten to read origin stories, some of the first works ever published in English by American Indians, boarding school narratives of Indians who were forced into schools that taught them Western ideals and culture, and more contemporary works of fiction and poetry by native authors. Here are a few examples of indigenous sign language and what it means for the story:

from Miko Kings: An Indian Baseball Story by LeAnne Howe:

“The wig’s supposed to make him look traditional, but Laemmle wove it like a girl’s braids. It’s obvious to the Indians that their producer doesn’t know the difference between the plaits of a powerful warrior and those of a little girl. Each time Laemmle’s back is turned, Hope’s teammates elbow one another and point at the wig. The men use sign language to call Hope Ohoyo Holba, like a woman but not.

Hope watches his teammates joke at his expense. He signs back that he’s the hero of this story: ‘Out of 157 games played this season, I’ve started in 45, completed 40, won 35, and lost 8.’ He signs the number 8 again for emphasis.

The men snicker. Hope signals Blip Bleen, the Miko Kings’ player-manager. ‘Tell them I’m the hero,’ he signs” (Howe 7-8).

This is the prelude to the story, in which the team and their usage of sign language is first introduced. It is clear that signing is not just about baseball, but a full language utilized by all members of the community. Later in the novel, sign language is used to communicate from the field to the stands, when Blip the catcher notices that something is wrong with Hope’s pitching and Bo Hash seems to be involved:

“Blip signals to Henri and Lonnie Johns in the stands, then points to Hash. Get him, he signs. Find out what he’s doing with Hope. Hope sees Blip’s signals and looks at him with pure hatred. Blip senses it and wonders if Hope knows what happened with Cora… Hope can see that Ezol has come down from the bleachers and is standing close to the dugout… Their eyes meet. Stop, don’t do it, she signs. Stop. Stop. Stop. Stop. She keeps signing and screaming, trying to be heard over the roar or the crowd, yelling, ‘Throw the ball!'” (196, 197).

At the conclusion of Hope’s life, he is known as “No Hands”–they were chopped off at the wrist, observes a nurse (198). Nevertheless, he is still filled with the passion for baseball and his former skill… his hands had been perfect, he remembers. Perfect for baseball–but also able to communicate on another level than just speech.

This novel’s use of sign language tells us, indirectly, the same information I learned about the language’s history: it was used in addition to spoken language rather than instead of it; the language was understood widely and therefore well-preserved; and others could learn and understand the language. Nonverbal communication encompasses any form of communication (body language, facial expressions, micro-expressions, sounds, and formal sign languages), but sign language is one that is often omitted form fiction. In Miko Kings, the story comes from and transitions between spoken and unspoken words–and between ghosts and living people–seamlessly. This works well for a book that explores the physics of space and time surrounding baseball and the Choctaw language.

from House Made of Dawn by N. Scott Momaday:

In House Made of Dawn there is no sign language, but there is a great deal of mention of hands, body language, and positioning: Abel’s hands are broken–again, purposeful violence against someone’s hands–and Tosamah the Priest of the Sun remembers his grandmother in “postures” rather than in stories:

“I see my grandmother in the several postures that were peculiar to her: standing at the wood stove on a winter morning and turning meat in a great iron skillet; sitting at the south window, bent above her beadwork, and afterward, when her vision failed, looking down for a very long time into the fold of her hands; going out upon a cane, very slowly as she did when the weight of age came upon her; praying. I remember her most often at prayer. She made long, rambling prayers out of suffering and hope, having seen many things. I was never sure that I had the right to hear, so exclusive were they of all mere custom and company… I did not always understand her prayers; I believe they were made of an older language than that of ordinary speech” (Momaday 117).

Some of the most impactful scenes of this novel do not include words, but body language, such as when Abel kills an albino man and it seems to be with consent–even by request of the albino man… but the words that might have been said don’t matter. The meaning is there–though maybe not for the reader–and it needs no words.

References: 

Céline Carayon; “The Gesture Speech of Mankind”: Old and New Entanglements in the Histories of American Indian and European Sign Languages. Am Hist Rev 2016; 121 (2): 461-491. doi: 10.1093/ahr/121.2.461

Greenwald, Brian H. “Significant Gestures: A History of American Sign Language – by John Tabak.” Historian, vol. 70, no. 3, Fall2008, pp. 558-559. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1111/j.1540-6563.2008.00221_31.x.

Howe, LeAnne. Miko Kings: an Indian Baseball Story. San Frnacisco, Aunt Lute Books, 2007.

Hughes, Pam. “First Indian Sign Language Conference in 80 Years Will Be Held in August.”Indianz.com, Indian Country Today, 18 Aug. 2010, indianz.com/boardx/topic.asp?ARCHIVE=true&TOPIC_ID=41328. Accessed 17 May 2017.

Momaday, Navarre Scott. House Made of Dawn. New York, HarperPerennial, 2010.

“Native American Sign Language.” Indian Country Media Network, 3 Jan. 2011, indiancountrymedianetwork.com/news/native-american-sign-language/. Accessed 17 May 2017.

Shaw, Emily and Yves Delaporte. “New Perspectives on the History of American Sign Language.” Sign Language Studies, vol. 11, no. 2, Winter2011, pp. 158-204. EBSCOhost, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=hft&AN=509293450&site=ehost-live.

Images and gifs:

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Published by

Sarah Madden

Currently an intern at Tryon International Equestrian Center, Sarah graduated from Wofford College with a Bachelor of Arts degree in English and environmental studies. She served as a Senior Writer for the Old Gold & Black newspaper and also as an intern with the Wofford Office of Marketing and Communications. Sarah competed with the Wofford College Equestrian Team, is a PATH Int'l Certified Therapeutic Riding Instructor, and in her spare time, enjoys playing with and riding her American Saddlebred mare, Dancer.

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