View Our Catalog

Join Our E-Mail List

What's New

Sign Language Studies

American Annals of the Deaf

Press Home

Multilingualism and Sign Languages: From the Great Plains to Australia

Ceil Lucas, Editor

Part One: Multilingualism

A Historical Linguistic Account of Sign Language
among North American Indians

Jeffrey E. Davis

Signed communication among various indigenous peoples has been observed and documented across the North American continent since fifteenth- and sixteenth-century European contact. Early scholars of this subject (e.g., Clark 1885; Mallery 1880; Scott 1931; Tomkins 1926) have made cases for the North American Indian sign variety to justify its being considered a full-fledged language. Two predominant themes in the early writings about Indian signed languages are “universality” and “iconicity”—theoretical issues that signed language linguists continue to address even today. The study of such phenomena helps broaden our understanding of these issues and other linguistic questions. For example, the early research on Indian signed languages informed the seminal work of some of the first signed language linguists (e.g., Stokoe 1960; Battison 1978/2003). These historical linguistic data need to be reexamined in light of current linguistic theories, interdisciplinary perspectives, and current sign use among deaf and hearing North American Indians and other indigenous populations around the world.


Observed and documented across several geographic locations and cultural areas, the historical varieties of indigenous signed language specific to North America are sometimes collectively referred to as “North American Indian Sign Language” (see Wurtzburg and Campbell, 1995). Historically, these varieties of signed language were named in various ways—Plains Indian Sign Language, Indian Sign Language, The Sign Language, Indian Language of Signs, and historical references in this paper will apply those names where appropriate. Previous anthropological linguistic field research (Kroeber 1958; Voegelin 1958; West 1960) indicates that signed language was used in varying degrees within most of the language families of Native North America. The best documented cases of indigenous signed languages involved various Indian groups who once inhabited the Great Plains area of the North American continent (see table 1). This enormous geographic expanse stretched north to south for more than two thousand miles from the North Saskatchewan River in Canada to the Rio Grande in Mexico. The east-west boundaries were approximately the Mississippi-Missouri valleys and the foothills of the Rocky Mountains and encompassed an area of some one million square miles. Generally, twelve major geographic cultural areas of Native North America are identified in the literature with the Plains cultural area centrally located to all of these (cf. Campbell 2000, Mithun 1999). Historically, this large geographic area was one of extreme linguistic diversity, and hundreds of different languages were spoken among the native populace.

I am grateful to the Office of the Chancellor and Dean of Graduate Studies at the University of Tennessee for their generous support to have digitized the documentary materials that are the focus of this paper. I would also like to acknowledge the support from a National Endowment for the Humanities and National Science Foundation Documenting Endangered Languages fellowship (FN-50002-06). Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this paper do not necessarily reflect those of the University of Tennessee, National Endowment for the Humanities, National Science Foundation, or the Smithsonian Institution.
Next Page