American Indian Sign Language, also called Indian Sign Talk, is most often associated with the tribes of the Great Plains of North America in the 18th and 19th centuries. However, there is evidence of the use of signed languages among the Indians of North America that dates back to the earliest contact between the old and the new worlds. The use of sign language has also been found among both the deaf and hearing members of tribes that span the continent from the south to the north as well as the west to the east. It is widely thought of as a relic of the past. However, while it is an endangered language, Indian Sign Talk continues to be used today, and for some, the use of which is viewed as a display of ethnic identity. The other sign language that exists in the United States is American Sign Language which is used among a majority of the members of the d/Deaf community. Analyzing the cultural contexts in which both signed languages exist not only illuminates divergent understandings of the concept of language itself but also exposes the darker underpinnings of social philosophies that continue to affect both minority groups today.
Clark, William P. The Indian Sign Language. Philadelphia: Hamersly, 1885.
As Captain of the Second Calvary, in 1876-7, William Clark was exposed to Indian Sign Language while in command of approximately three hundred enlisted Indian scouts. The scouts were from six different tribes which spoke six different languages and many used sign language to communicate with one another. Impressed by the sign language’s “value and beauty,” Clark took it upon himself to attempt to learn it. In 1881, he was instructed to compile a report on the signed language by Lt.-General Sheridan. Clark spent several years investigating the use of Indian Sign Language among tribes in Minnesota, Manitoba, “Dakota,” Nebraska, Montana, Utah, Wyoming, and Idaho. The report he submitted to Sheridan in 1884 was a dictionary, of sorts, that included commentary on the perceived use of the sign language as well as cultural customs of numerous tribes. Though firmly influenced by the cultural perceptions of his time, Clark provides a first-hand account of how, and by whom, Indian Sign Language was used in the late 19th century.
Dodge, Richard I. Thirty-Three Years Among Our Wild Indians. Hartford: A.D. Worthington and Co., 1882.
After spending thirty-four years on the frontier (approximately 1848-1882), Colonel Richard Irving Dodge published several short articles and a few books which aimed to present an “unbiased” perspective of Indian life. In his opinion, he attempted to abstain from consulting those who were “authorities” of Indian behavior at the time, and instead directly consulted the members of various tribes on the matters of which he wrote. His book includes an entire chapter on the subject of Indian Sign Language and it was also mentioned throughout several other chapters. He documents numerous personal opinions on the sign language held by various Indians. While also influenced by the beliefs of his time, both Dodge and Clark maintained that the sign language they encountered was a complete language, capable of expressing any idea no matter how complex.
Mallery, Garrick. “The Gesture Speech of Man.” Proceedings of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, 30th Meeting (august, 1881). Reprinted in Aboriginal Sign Languages of the Americas and Australia, D.J. Umiker-Sebeok and T.A. Sebeok, vol. 1, New York: Plenum Press, 1978.
Considered a pioneer in the emergence of the disciplines of anthropology and linguistics, Colonel Garrick Mallery was among the first assigned to the newly formed Bureau of Ethnology at the Smithsonian Institute in 1879. A staunch “advocate of truth and social justice,” Mallery was, in many ways, radically ahead of the views of his time. His research of Indian Sign Language, a cause he dedicated the last fifteen years of his life to, is still considered an invaluable source on the subject today. Mallery was the first to use the term “semiotics,” which is defined as “the theory of signs”, in published writings. The scope of the data he collected on the matter was not “rivaled for the next seventy five years – until the mid twentieth century” (Davis, 2010). His published works are the first to analyze Indian Sign Language from a scientific, linguistic point of view.
Davis, Jeffrey E. Hand Talk: Sign Language among American Indian Nations. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010.
Jeffrey Davis is a contemporary Sign Language interpreter and Professor of American Sign Language Linguistics. His most recent publication on the subject of American Indian Sign Language is the first of its kind to be published in over a century. The last research that included both linguistic analysis and anthropological research on the topic of American Indian Sign Language was published by Garrick Mallery in the late nineteenth century. Hand Talk is also revolutionary in that it was published in accompaniment to a website that provides the reader with visual accounts of the sign languages discussed as well as access to the recorded research.
Farnell, Brenda. Do You See What I Mean? Austin: University of Texas Press, 1995.
Farnell is a contemporary anthropologist that spent several years studying the use of sign language by the storytellers of the Assinibone people of northern Montana. Unlike linguists and anthropologist before her, she places emphasis on the simultaneous use of speech and signs. She draws attention to the fact that the Assinibone and Euro/American concepts of language are very different.
Long, Stephen H. Account of an Expedition from Pittsburgh to the Rocky Mountains. Philadelphia: Edwin James, 1823.
Major Long’s written accounts of an expedition into the North American West, which he led in 1817, include a sixteen page compilation of signs used by the Indians he encountered. Though he provides little explanation of their use, his record of the sign’s existence provides important historical documentation.
Taylor, Allan R. “Nonspeech Communication Systems: Sign Language,” in Handbook of North American Indians, ed. Ives Goddang, vol. 17. Washington D.C.: Smithsonian Institute, 1996.
Taylor provides an excellent summary of the use and linguistic structure of Indian Sign Language that includes the research of several contemporary linguists and anthropologists.
Umiker-Sebeok, D.J. and Sebeok, Thomas A. Aboriginal Sign Languages of the Americas and Australia, vol. 1. New York: Plenum Press, 1978.
Semioticists Umiker-Sebeok and Sebeok edited a multi-volume collection of publications written on the subject of aboriginal sign languages. The first volume was dedicated solely to the articles published by Garrick Mallery. The introduction that they wrote provides invaluable insight into Euro/American perspectives on Sign Language itself, and the views of those who use Sign Language, that were widely accepted in the late twentieth century.
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, “Medical Devices: Cochlear Implants,” U.S. Food and Drug Administration, www.fda.gov (accessed May 2, 2012).
This website was the source used for the description of the function of the Cochlear Implants.
Wixtrom, Chris. "Two Views of Deafness." Denver: The Mile High City. http://www.denvergov.org/signlanguageresources/DeafCulture/TwoViewsofDeafness/tabid/436091/Default.aspx (accessed May 2, 2012).
This article was used to support the explanation given of the current views of American Sign Language found in the United States today.
Wurtzburg, Susan and Lyle Campbell. "North American Indian Sign Language: Evidence of its Existence Before European Contact." International Journal of American Linguistics 61 (1995): 153-67
This article directly disputes the belief that American Indian Sign Language was developed as a result of European contact. It provides an excellent overview of the earliest recorded accounts of Indian Sign Language, and translations of those written by early Spanish explorers.