It is early September 1930, and the Blackfeet Nation of Montana is playing host to a historic gathering — much of it conducted in silence.
Gen. Hugh Scott, a veteran of the U.S. Cavalry who spent decades fighting in the 19th century American Indian Wars, sits as part of a half moon formation of participants inside a teepee. Wearing his army uniform and using his hands in complete silence, he addresses the traditionally dressed representatives of several Indigenous nations.
“I have brought you from every direction to sit in this council. Young men are not learning your sign language, and soon it will disappear from this country,” he signals using Plain Indigenous Sign Language.
The scene was captured on film in what was then the largest intertribal meeting of American Indian chiefs, elders and other representatives ever recorded in motion picture format.
It became known as the Indian Sign Language Grand Council, and Scott’s fear about IPSL disappearing was prophetic.
Nearly a century later, Indigenous sign languages such as PISL that once thrived as the diplomatic language from northern Saskatchewan to northern Mexico, have been subsumed by colonial sign languages. Some have gone underground and most are in danger of disappearing forever.
Full sign languages
Sign languages happen naturally as community members have a need to communicate with deaf individuals, says Jeffrey Davis, professor of linguistics at the University of Tennessee. Davis, author of Hand Talk: Sign Language among American Indian Nations, says Indigenous communities developed their own full complex sign languages that spread enormous distances due to their practicality.
“Sign language was very functional. You could use it for hunting, long distances, when it is noisy, and when you need to be very quiet,” Davis says.
The first European to report ISL was the Spanish explorer Cabeza de Vaca in the 16th century. In 1878, the U.S. army commissioned a PISL study to examine its military importance and predominance among Native Americans.
Davis’s research suggests ISL was so developed that it became the basis of at least half of American Sign Language, now the predominant sign language in North America. According to Davis, between 1847 and 1890, ISL descriptions were “widely distributed to educators and schools for the deaf through the journal American Annals of the Deaf and Dumb.”
Indigenous sign languages in Canada
ISL was not only common in the United States, but widely practised in Canada as well.
Darin Flynn, professor of linguistics at the University of Calgary, says there are three distinct ISLs in Canada: Plains Sign Language (still known by a few Dakota, Cree and Blackfoot in the Prairies); Plateau Sign Language (once used by the Salish, Sahptian and Ktunaxa Nations in British Columbia); and Inuit Sign Language (used across the Canadian Arctic).
“These are unique languages that aren’t directly related to each other. They were created presumably by deaf individuals. Therefore, they are distinct genetic lineages,” Flynn says.
Today, little is known about Plateau Sign Language. It was a lingua franca, meaning it was used as a common language among speakers of different groups and languages, but ultimately it was replaced by Chinook jargon. Flynn believes the failure to document Plateau Sign Language means people can’t effectively revive it in the future.
Though Indigenous sign languages are described as some of the most endangered Indigenous forms of communication in Canada, few linguists give them the same attention given to spoken languages.
Flynn says ASL has displaced Indigenous signs in much the same way English and French have pushed spoken Indigenous languages into near extinction.
“There are a lot of deaf Inuit and they are all learning ASL or QSL [Quebec Sign Language]. It is awkward that they are learning the French one when they have their own,” Flynn says.
David Dános, a UBC-educated independent interdisciplinary researcher devoted to the study of ISL, says ISL is subject to the same historical discriminatory policies as spoken Indigenous languages. “Research is starting to uncover that the wave of genocide that targets sign language people as an independent nation was used... alongside the buffalo killings to destroy Indigenous countries in the plains and take their land,” Dános says.
Dános suggests colonial governments tried to restrict the use of ISL because it was the main means for commerce and diplomacy among Indigenous nations. Dános says he’s found evidence settlers refused to acknowledge “Hand Talk” (as it was called) as a language even though it was used in treaty negotiations.
“Sign languages just were officially viewed as real human languages for the first time in 1962,” says Dános, referring to the work of American linguist William C. Stokoe, Jr.
Indigenous sign languages still present
PISL may be endangered, but it has not disappeared.
Martin Heavy Head Jr., a member of the Blood tribe of the Blackfoot Confederacy, learned PISL at home growing up because his father's uncle was deaf.
Heavy Head, 32, recalls older generations using it as a daily language. He used it himself to get someone’s attention, to say something is going to start or finish, or to say “good” or “bad.”
“Last year, there was an old man I just met. He didn’t want to tell me some important information in public because we were in a restaurant, and I asked him a question. He just talked to me in sign language and I was able to understand what he was saying. We all kind of grew up knowing it,” says Heavy Head, who lives in Lethbridge, Alta.
Heavy Head belongs to the first generation of Blackfoot who spoke English first instead of the Blackfoot language Siksiká. In his opinion, this change reduced their chance of learning PISL.
“I still see it being used, but not nearly as much as when I was a little kid. I think there has been a decline in use,” Heavy Head says.
Heavy Head believes schools should teach ASL to everybody as a valuable tool, but hopes PISL can be preserved by teaching it at home or in on-reserve schools. He sees PISL as a secret language that connects him to his family and ancestors.
“To me it is a nice connection with life before colonialization. It is something very direct. I know when I make these signs, that these are signs that my ancestors thousands of years [ago] were using, too. That feels pretty good,” Heavy Head said.
While for some signing is functional and convenient in certain circumstances, for others it is the main way to communicate with the outside world.