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:

A long walk

This January I spent three weeks hiking, camping, and hostelling through iconic California landscapes, and I am forever grateful for the experience. I’m blown away by how much there is to share and remember–and how much there is that I can’t put into words, but here’s the “short” list:

I learned to pitch a tent and cook dinner on a camp stove/fire in the dark, hiked through waist-deep snow with avalanches falling nearby, fell in love with Pinnacles National Park and its incredibly diverse ecosystems, drove “the one” along the Pacific coast until a landslide forced us to turn back, walked among massive elephant seals at Año Nuevo State Park, camped next to strawberry fields at Sunset Beach, went tidepooling with marine biologists at Carmel Point and later by ourselves at Point Reyes, panned for gold and gemstones and visited Sutter’s Mill site, where gold was first discovered.

I hiked with elk on the coast near Point Reyes, walked among redwoods in Big Sur and giant, two-thousand year-old sequoias in Calaveras Big Trees State Park, toured Cline Cellars and enjoyed a wine tasting after petting their donkeys and learning about their sustainable farming practices, visited a petrified forest, squeezed through Yosemite’s spider cave in total darkness with no visibility and only the person in front of me to guide me, spent an afternoon on the beach at Point Reyes enjoying the sunset and campfire conversation, and greatly expanded my taste in music thanks to our lonnnnnnnnnnnnnng hours in the vans and our collaborative playlist.

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But the true highlight of the month was the wonderful humans who put up with my stench, made sure that I had nut-free food to eat and managed to avoid sending me into anaphylactic shock, loved me well when I got sad news from home, made me laugh with impersonations and rap battles, and were sources of endless deep and encouraging conversations about everything. I signed up for this trip entirely independently of my friends, and really, I didn’t know anyone well going into it. These four gals and nine dudes are family now, and while I never would’ve picked us out, I’m so thankful for them. We’re a diverse bunch, but we all share a passion for adventure, the outdoors, and the environment–and that bridges all other differences. If you’re reading this, team, I love ya. So much. Thanks for being you. Let’s go camping soon.

This month was full of the unexpected, but it was also full of rest and reflection. We rarely had service, and I was free to experience every day in the moment without the pressure of work, school or the ever-intimidating job search. Even the little things, like not wearing makeup for an entire month and not feeling any pressure to shave, was so freeing. I signed up for this class in order to fill some missing holes in my outdoor and environmental education, but also because it’s something I know my late classmate, MacGregor, would have loved. I wanted to honor her somehow, and this adventure seemed appropriate. It was–beyond my imagination. As we left Yosemite, I wrote this in my journal:

I feel that a bear has been watching us as we walk. And maybe it has… maybe MacGregor is with us. We’ve shared so many trails before–it feels wrong that she is not among the small cohort of women amidst the mostly male class. She should be here… she would be here, were she still alive. I’m convinced of it. So maybe she is here. Maybe she was the condor we knew was above our heads but could not see; maybe she was the bear hunkered warm in its winter place while we stomped and stumbled through waist-deep snow, pelting each other with snowballs and overflowing with laughter. Maybe she was in the wind, or among the redwoods in Big Sur where we found banana slugs on the slopes and hoped to spy the largest. Her adventurous spirit certainly was. Either way, I feel that something in me has been restored, though I can’t yet identify what. Maybe I should just keep walking. 

That’s what last year was for me: a long and unexpected walk among avalanches that seemed to barely miss me; bruises from falling through crusted drifts and dragging myself back to the compacted trail; gratitude for the trailblazers ahead of me and the satisfying crunch of snow beneath my feet; an exhausted body that protests my every effort to continue on the trail; crisp air that at once thrills and drains me as I struggle to drink it in; despair as I turn a corner to find yet another steep slope with no resting place in sight; the sudden, unexpected weight of snow dumped by a tired tree on my head, and the slow thawing process afterwards; and wonder–absolute wonder at the joy that comes from trusting your guide and briefly, finally understanding the purpose of the hike we’ve endured. And we have endured. We were made to walk this earth, to enjoy the view, to face plant in the snow, and to keep walking, however harrowing the climb. 

Jesus taught me so much about trust this January, and an old promise that once felt limiting is now so sweet to me: “The LORD will fight for you while you keep silent” (Exodus 14:14). There’s a lot in this world that I feel called to fight, and it’s easy for me to feel overwhelmed by the sheer scope of these battles. I feel so small–the kind of small that we feel when submerged in the natural world, such as in the high peaks at Pinnacles or on cliff-lined coasts of Point Reyes, with waves crashing in a continuous thunder at their base.

But there is such freedom in this smallness, too: I can faithfully, joyfully do what I am called to do, and no more. The Lord will fight for me even when I am silent, and he will certainly work through my work, too. I just have to trust that my seemingly fruitless efforts are not in vain–that there’s so much going on around me that I cannot see, but will understand one day, some day.

So now what?

I hope I never forget the lessons and memories I gained this past year. I hope 2017 far exceeds my expectations–though January set the bar pretty high! I’ve got one more semester at Wofford before I’m on my own–with my horse in tow–but otherwise, the real world is coming up quickly. Before I graduate, I’ll have a novella published (through Wofford) and hopefully some creative nonfiction as well. We’ll see. I know this semester’s going to be a hike of its own kind.

With the EPA and National Parks Service (and basically all scientists) under attack, I’m convinced that environmentalism is as important as ever before, though I’m not sure what I’ll be doing a year from now. But that’s okay. I’ve got a whole three months to figure out where I’m going next… I just have to keep walking. No matter where I go, I know the view will be great.

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Writer, horse lover, Jesus-loving environmentalist for hire!

A Selfish Senior Year:

How I’m learning to actually take care of myself.

Someone told me recently that I seem like I’m doing “so much better” this semester.

While this statement was so encouraging to hear, I laughed a little, surprised. It’s true that physically, I am in a much healthier state than in years past. I can’t point to the reason excepting the grace of God… my current health is such a blessing after the past seven years. With that said, this semester has been anything but easy, and I’ve spent a surprising amount of my time crying. Ugly crying.

Somehow, I think this emotional turmoil is what’s made the beginning of my senior year so special. I am [forever] learning to be vulnerable with my peers. I am totally okay with not being okay. And, more importantly, I’m learning to take time to take care of myself in the very moment I need self-care, and not a moment later.

I have a tendency to dwell on the hurts of other people; my ability to see and observe the people around me is something that I often take for granted. Sometimes, though, the pain of other people is overwhelming, especially when there’s nothing I can do about it:

  • When friends and classmates die by suicide, and the empty chairs in [senior] classes are so distractingly heartbreaking.
  • When friends and classmates are so consumed by anxiety that they struggle to engage on campus.
  • When friends and classmates are homesick, sick, or just tired.
  • When neighbors are annoying and difficult but also destructive.
  • When I can see that something is wrong, but the pain is so deep and so secret that it will never be brought to the surface—or at least never revealed to me, the quiet girl on the other side of the classroom.
  • When family members need me, but I can’t come home to comfort them.

I can’t do much to fix any of these things—at least, not directly or wholly restore the situation like I’d love. The world is just too big and too complex. But I can love the people in front of me.

I can write newspaper articles to help people or causes I care about. I can be the kind, quiet girl on the other side of the classroom, and maybe I can even cross the room. I can be available to those who need me, over and over again. I can tell people that I see light in them, even as I see their pain. I can help students with their papers and show them their hidden giftedness with words. I can show them their own brilliance—one of my favorite jobs as a writing center tutor. I can take care of my Wofford family in so many ways.

But I must take care of myself.

It’s hard for me to say no. Selfishness is the last word I want attached to my name. I dislike selfish people. I don’t ever want to disregard or silence the needs and voices of others. I don’t like saying no, especially when saying yes helps someone else.

And yet, I’m learning to take care of myself first. I’m learning to be more “selfish”—in a new way. The kind of self-care I’m seeking after isn’t watching Netflix instead of studying. It doesn’t mean forcing myself to do more [good things] for self-care, like exercise: it’s allowing myself to do less.

Self-care is allowing myself to do less.

Sometimes that means I skip meetings of organizations that I love and enjoy. Sometimes I sleep in instead of finishing my homework… something my former self would abhor. Sometimes I turn in a paper that’s not my absolute best work, because it is the best work I could have produced in that moment. If something more important comes up, it takes precedence over my homework, and that’s okay. As embarrassing and difficult as it is to admit my own finiteness, it’s also exhausting to try and keep up with my own expectations.

Friends, I know what it’s like to trust that another cup of coffee is all you need to borrow against tomorrow (Believe me… I drink a lot of coffee!). I know what it’s like to abandon responsibility and call it self-care. I’ve done it for most of my adult life.

But self-care, itself, is our responsibility. Our bodies are temples, right? Let’s treat them like it! This looks differently for everybody, but it’s important. It took me a while to realize that forcing myself into deeper exhaustion with [excessive] exercise was just burning the candle from both ends, so to speak. Yes, self-care involves physical health, and exercise is so important! But are we making a deposit rather than a withdrawal in our self-care? For a while, I wasn’t.

Self-care is sleeping. There’s no other way around it. We are so much more resilient with sufficient sleep. I believe that we cannot even begin to exercise or wean ourselves from excessive energy drinks or achieve any other health/self-care goals unless we are sleeping. It took me more than three years to admit that I wasn’t being honest about the way my sleeping patterns were affecting my health. It’s still difficult. But it’s worth it.

Self-care is taking a break… A real break. Outside, or at least away from all forms of work or screens. How long can we go without our phones? Is it truly restful if we are still planning out our week in our break times? How many times have I sat outside without homework, just for the sole purpose of enjoying my surroundings? Not enough. The in-between can be great, but it cannot be our only source of relaxation. Let’s go relaxing, friends.

Self-care is processing with friends. I am so grateful for my friends and the way that we intentionally set aside time to check on each other as a group. In one particular circle of friends, each person gets to update the others on how things are going—how things are really going. It is one of the most wonderful practices of self-care that I’ve found.

Being vulnerable with friends allows for me to receive care as I give it to others. It’s beautiful, no matter how you slice it. I’ve got a lot of people in my life that love and care for me every day, in big ways and in infinitesimally small ways that I appreciate so very much.

It’s really hard to live restfully as a senior with four jobs, two majors, a capstone project, a team, and a four-legged child. I’m really bad at it, most days. I am tragically busy and overcommitted, still. But when my dear friend told me I seemed so much better than before, she was right. I can talk about difficulties in my life with such relief, now. I get to share the deep, deep grace of God as He works in my life. The healing and restoration I’ve seen around me is precious and beautiful, even if I don’t notice it at first. It’s there, friends. It’s there.

Ask me about it. Or don’t. But at least know that when I tell you I’m not having a good day, I am somehow also on my way to being very, very well.

Because my God is so good. And it is well.

Do you own or manage an equestrian boarding facility near TIEC? Take my survey!

For my senior capstone as an environmental studies major at Wofford, I’m studying ecological horsekeeping. I’m interested in discovering what equestrian management trends are specific to the Tryon/Landrum/Campobello/Columbus area. If you own or manage a barn in the area or commute to the Tryon International Equestrian Center regularly for shows, I’d love to have your feedback! The survey takes about 10-15 minutes to complete.

Take the survey HERE.

Know anybody else that should take the survey? Please share it with them! If you’re interested in my work and would like more information, please contact me at maddensc@email.wofford.edu. I’d love to talk to you!

Thanks so much.

 

“Camp Ladybug” and the horses that run Tryon

For the past five weeks I’ve been living in Columbus, NC, hosting two teens from Boston as they competed in horse shows at the Tryon International Equestrian Center (TIEC). It’s been a blast introducing them to Bojangles, queso, Krispy Kreme, Cookout, boiled peanuts, grits, and other wonderful foods like sourdough bread… and they’ve introduced me to all kinds of foods, too.

This is not an area with which I am unfamiliar: I attend Wofford College just thirty minutes away and I have kept my horse in Campobello/Landrum for two years now. I ride at Clear View Farm in Landrum with the Wofford equestrian team, and I have loved attending Saturday Night Lights grand prix events at TIEC since its opening. I love the area.

Every day I drive between three counties and two states: Polk (NC), Spartanburg (SC), and Greenville (SC). Whether the drive is half a mile or twenty minutes, I almost always pass a truck piled high with logs. It seems that cutting down trees is a daily occurrence in the foothills. I’d be willing to bet that TIEC has a great deal to do with the rapid development of the area as farmland. I have to swerve to avoid a wide truckload of timber 9 out of 10 times I leave the house. This makes me sad–the clay-filled patches of cleared land will take years to become beautiful again, wooded or not. The topsoil lost will never really replenish, or at least not in my lifetime.

At the same time, I love the farmland. I love seeing horses, cattle, bison, donkeys and other animals grazing on rolling hills of lush grass. I love the hay fields and the rows of corn. But I love the trees, too. There’s got to be a balance. How does one keep a farm in a way that doesn’t destroy the area’s natural beauty?

The capstone I’m working on this summer involves studying trends in horsekeeping and land management in the area, especially since TIEC’s opening in the summer of 2014. I’m hoping to see how the development of TIEC as a major hub for equestrians has impacted the land around it.

My summer job is easy proof: I’m living on a ten acre horse farm, freshly carved from a wooded lot. The pastures have taken months to establish–runoff was a major hurdle in both construction and landscaping. The family is based in Boston, and will be until they permanently move here in about nine years. They built their retirement farm ten years in advance, sending their thirteen year-old daughter, her friend, and two horses here for the summer in order to compete at TIEC. Obviously, this area revolves around horses and is beginning to revolve around the equestrian center.

I’ve met many people from the area through our equestrian connection: waitresses that comment on our riding breeches, feed store and tack store employees that love to swap stories, or families in the grocery store whose giant bag of carrots we notice and ask, “Do you have horses?” The answer is almost always yes. We’ve met many area people by asking to pet their dogs as they walk around TIEC.

Everyone has a different opinion about how TIEC is impacting the area.

“It has done almost nothing for the community,” a woman says as we stand outside a Landrum restaurant. “It is so self-contained. Everything is right there–the food, the housing. You can’t even bring your own shavings, you have to use theirs. It doesn’t help the community tack stores, restaurants, nothing.”

I point out that TIEC has most certainly added a great deal of jobs to the area and has most certainly added business to area real estate–two of TIEC’s most significant contributions to the area. In my head, I also consider that if all TIEC competitors were required to find shavings and hay on their own in the area, there would be a severe shortage of both, and prices would be exponentially driven up for locals. But I don’t say that aloud… the economic implications of an establishment this large are expansive and complex, beyond my own understanding. The woman didn’t know that TIEC had done so much for real estate and jobs–“That’s good to know,” she says.

She’s also not wrong, though. The center has been understaffed and incredibly busy this summer, and I’ve heard complaints of slow running shows, un-emptied trashcans and bathroom facilities without toilet paper. When the US Pony Club East Championships were held at TIEC this summer, at one point TIEC ran out of food and water, according to one of the coaches we met. I believe that TIEC has grown so fast that they have outgrown their own staff–they are not quite as organized as they need to be. I also believe, though, that they will get there.

TIEC is a fabulous facility and is a wonderful place to compete. The center is intentionally available and free for the community to come explore–even people who know nothing about horses are welcome at TIEC, and I admire that. The restaurants are super tasty, and though they may be slow at times, the food is worth it. One local trainer told me that TIEC has really improved the quality of eating out in Tryon, diversifying the options and increasing the overall quality of restaurants in the area. Restaurants in Landrum, Tryon and Campobello have seen some increased business, too. Not everybody wants sushi or diner food, however good, every single day for two weeks.

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Other horse-related businesses have benefitted from the center, as well. After a particular weekend of showing in extra hot weather, one of the horses was not feeling great. He was anemic, and we needed to buy a certain supplement to help him feel better. I went to three different feed stores in order to get enough. “We had some gallon buckets yesterday, but someone from [TIEC] came and cleared us out yesterday,” said one woman at the register as I plunked the last three small bottles on the counter. When TIEC’s two tack stores do not fill the need–and they focus mostly on equipment and apparel–competitors will shop at local businesses.

So how do my observations fit in to my project? Well, the short answer is that they are my project. I’ve been working all summer on a survey to give to boarding operation owners in order to gather more information about how horse management in the area has been impacted by TIEC and the area’s environmental factors. I’m SO close to distributing this survey and I can’t wait to see what feedback I receive!*

In addition to surveys, I will be conducting interviews and site visits with several managers in order to continue what I’ve been doing all summer: engaging people in conversation about horsekeeping in the Tryon/Landrum/Campobello area. I want to know what narratives about land management, horsekeeping and TIEC are present here, and how I can blend these narratives together to paint a more complete picture for Tryon horsekeepers to use and learn from as they see fit.

I cannot wait to enjoy the remaining weeks I will spend here at Ladybug Farm, I cannot wait to continue my project work into the fall, and I cannot wait to watch TIEC grow and thrive in this already horse-obsessed community. After all, I’m practically a local, now.

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My girls and I love the weekends, when we get to hang out at Tryon International Equestrian Center and their families come to visit!

 

*If you are the owner or manager of an equestrian boarding operation within an hour’s drive of the Tryon International Equestrian Center and would like to help me with this project by taking my survey, please contact me by commenting below! Thanks so much.

Since I Last Wrote

I’ve done a lot of writing in the past four months – about 63,000 words, to be exact. It’s been a whirlwind! This semester was filled with many newspaper articles, a handful of personal essays and an as-of-yet unfinished novella. Don’t ask… I’m not ready to share yet! I will say, though, that I’ve learned a lot about myself during the creative writing process, and despite its messiness, I so appreciate what this semester has taught me. The Old Gold and Black garnered a record twelve awards from the South Carolina Press Association, including 1st place general excellence in our division! Personally, I was awarded the 1st place individual use of social media and 4th place feature story… I am so thankful and so proud to be a part of this newspaper and I can’t wait to spend one more year on staff. This spring, when I wasn’t writing, I was riding or teaching riding! Here’s the short version:

  • Dancer turned 10! We’ve been making what I’m calling mini-milestone victories in various areas of our relationship, from crossing water to accepting ropes around her head. I don’t get to ride her much, but each time I interact with her I’m reminded that I have to take the time it takes… the results are so rewarding! Going into the summer, I’m so excited to see what we can accomplish together, but I’m also just going to enjoy being with her… because that’s what I love the most.
  • One of my most versatile HALTER horses passed away, and for the first time in my career I had to tell my students that their equine partner wasn’t coming back. It was hard, it created all kinds of logistical problems and left me bitter that an incredibly healthy horse died so suddenly and left me struggling to fill the holes. It’s been challenging to navigate the rest of the session without him, and I sometimes forget that Beau isn’t available for Thursday afternoon classes when I need a horse that can do everything. I guess I’m learning to avoid making assumptions about the tools I’ll have at my disposal on any given day. But I still miss Beau.
  • The Wofford Equestrian team finished our second season, but we are still busy preparing for the fall! The Wofford administration has been so supportive of us this year and we are working closely with them to grow the team. If you don’t follow us on Twitter yet, you should! We are always reporting from shows and sharing pictures of our adventures. I’ll be working all summer to be ready for the novice over fences division!

What’s next?

I’ll be living, working, studying and riding in Tryon this summer – I’m so excited! I’ll be studying sustainable horse-keeping in one of the nation’s fastest-growing equestrian hubs… I can’t wait to share what I learn. More than learning, though, I’m hoping to live restfully – that’s the biggest and hardest lesson I learned this semester. I can’t do everything. So here goes… something.

‘Ephemeral Flights’ release published in Spartanburg Herald Journal

One of my recent news releases for the college was published in the Spartanburg Herald Journal, and I just found out that Disability Today picked up the story and shared it on their website!

I highly recommend a visit to the exhibit in the Martha Cloud Chapman Gallery between now and April 5. There will also be an artist’s lecture on March 9 from 4-6 p.m.

Though my work has been published here before, this is the first time a piece has been published under my name for the SHJ, so I’m excited! This article was a blast to write and I was so honored to speak with this artist. She has a lot to say, and her story is impressive!

Read the SHJ article here.

Disability Today link

Photos by Mark Olencki.

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