Keeping Hand Talk Alive.

Cecily Hilleary of VOA News writes about a remarkable recent find and the history it represents:

In early September 1930, the Blackfeet Nation of Montana hosted a historic Indian Sign Language Grand Council, gathering leaders of a dozen North American Nations and language groups.

The three-day council held was organized by Hugh L. Scott, a 77-year-old U.S. Army General who had spent a good portion of his career in the American West, where he observed and learned what users called Hand Talk, and what is today more broadly known as Plains Indian Sign Language (PISL). With $5,000 in federal funding, Scott filmed the proceedings and hoped to produce a film dictionary of more than 1,300 signs. He died before he could finish the project.

Scott’s films disappeared into the National Archives. Recently rediscovered, they are an important resource for those looking to revitalize PISL.

Among them is Ron Garritson, who identifies himself as being of Cree, Cherokee and European heritage. He was raised in Billings, Montana, near the Crow Nation.

“I learned how to speak Crow to a degree, and I was really interested in the sign language,” he said. “I saw it being used by the Elders, and I thought it was a beautiful form of communication. And so I started asking questions.”

Garritson studied Scott’s films, along with works by other ethnographers and now has a vocabulary of about 1,700 signs. He conducts workshops and classes across Montana, in an effort to preserve and spread sign language and native history.

Prior to contact with Europeans, North American Native peoples were not a unified culture, but hundreds of different cultures and tribes, each with its own political organization, belief system and language. When speakers of one language met those of another, whether in trade, councils or conflict, they communicated in the lingua franca of Hand Talk.

Scholars dispute exactly when, in their 30,000-year history in North America, tribes developed sign language. It was observed among Florida tribes by 16th Century Spanish colonizers. […]

While each tribe had its own dialect, tribes were able to communicate easily. Though universal in North America, Hand Talk was more prominent among the nomadic Plains Nations.

“There were fewer linguistic groups east of the Mississippi River,” said Garritson. “They were mostly woodland tribes, living in permanent villages and were familiar with each other’s languages. They still used sign language to an extent, but not like it was used out here.” […]

By the late 1800s, tens of thousands of Native Americans still used Hand Talk. That changed when the federal government instituted a policy designed to “civilize” tribal people.

There’s more history at the link, along with an eight-minute clip from the film, a useful map, and photos. Thanks, Trevor!


  1. That must have made for a different experience of being deaf in a community where sign was widely used! Generally better integrated, but I wonder if there was also loss in not having a language ‘owned’ by a Deaf community.

  2. In his memoir, My Sixty Years on the Plains: Trapping, Trading, and Indian Fighting (1905, republished 2016), William T. Hamilton “was acknowledged by all to be the greatest sign-talker on the plains, either Indian or white; and was able to converse with all tribes. All Indian tribes use the same signs, though speaking a different language” (p. 4)

    The preface also mentions: “In 1882, while Mr. Hamilton was a witness in the Star Route trial in Washington, the Smithsonian Institution endeavored to photograph these signs, but with indifferent success” (p. 4).

    I wonder if Hand Talk became more standardized on the Great Plains, where speakers of many disparate languages were recent arrivals and highly mobile (most notably the Dakota/Nakota/Lakota), thanks largely to adopting horses for transport. Chinook Jargon in the northwest and Mobilian Jargon in the southeast seemed to have served as trade languages for less mobile, more settled communities.

  3. That seems plausible.

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