Plains Indian Sign Language

Plains Indian Sign Language

A precursor to American Sign Language

11/7/2023 | Pat Cain, Public Programs Manager


Plains Indian Sign Language (PISL) was a precursor to American Sign Language(ASL) and is considered one of the oldest languages in North America. PISL or Hand Talk was used by indigenous people for centuries before colonization. Hand Talk was used by deaf and hearing indigenous people within tribes and between tribes that spoke different dialects or languages. Hand Talk served as a means of universal communication among the many native languages throughout the continent. According to a 16th century Spanish colonizer visiting the Comanche, Hand Talk was so common there was no need for an interpreter. Rock and animal hide pictographs depicting similar Hand Talk motions reveal that Hand Talk may be even older than written documentation shows.

PISL was the dominant Hand talk from the Gulf of Mexico through the Great Plains and up into southern Canada. There were regional variations of Hand talk from the Arctic to Mesoamerica in present day Mexico, as well as localized tribe-specific variations. Researchers believe that Northeast Indian Sign Language was a contributor to the development of ASL. There are no alphabet signs for Indian Hand Talk like ASL. To refer to a tribe an ASL signer needs to spell out each letter, where PISL has a sign for every Native tribe.

In 1930, Hugh L. Scott, a 77 year old army general, organized a 3-day interTribal gathering of Native leaders. With $5000 in federal funding and a goal of producing a film dictionary of 1300 Hand Talk signs, he filmed the meeting to document and preserve this endangered, indigenous language. He died before he was able to complete the project. American Indian Sign Languages, as well as many other North American Indigenous languages, are still endangered today. In 2021 Bodéwadmimwen, a Potawatomi language, had only 8 speakers who knew Bodéwadmimwen as their first language and the average speaker's age was over 80 years old. Many colleges offer courses to learn these cultural languages and funding is provided at the federal level today.

The recent resurfacing(it was buried in the National Archives) of General Scott's interTribal film has lead to ethnographers creating a vocabulary of 1700 Hand Talk signs allowing this important cultural knowledge to be widely shared.

#PlainsIndianSignLanguage, #NativeAmericanHistoryMonth, #IndigenousCultures, #HandTalk