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

Previous Page

Next Page

The Plains tribes were geographically and culturally central to most of the other North American Indian cultural groups and a signed lingua franca appears to have evolved as a way to make communication possible among individuals speaking so many different mother tongues (Davis, 2005). Traditionally, the nomadic groups of the Great Plains used Plains Sign Language (PISL hereafter) as an alternate to spoken language. Beyond the Plains geographic area, fluent signers of PISL have been identified among native groups from the Plateau area—e.g., the Nez Perce (Sahaptian) and the Flathead (Salishan). In what remains the most extensive study of PISL to date, West (1960) reported dialect differences among these Indian groups, but found that these did not seriously impede signed communication. In the late 1950s, West found that PISL was still practiced, particularly on intertribal ceremonial occasions but also in storytelling and conversation, even among speakers of the same language. The historical ethnographic and linguistic documentary materials that are the focus of this paper support that PISL was used as a lingua franca among the Plains Indian tribes as well as between them and other American Indian linguistic groups (compare Campbell 2000; Davis 2005; Farnell 1995; Mithun 1999; Taylor 1978; Umiker-Sebeok and Sebeok 1978; Wurtzburg and Campbell 1995).

For example, Campbell (2000, 10) writes that “the sign language as a whole became the lingua franca of the Great Plains, and it spread from there as far as British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba.” Evidently there was some variation from tribe to tribe, and not all individuals were equally proficient in signed language. Varying degrees of signed language use among some American Indian individuals and groups has been observed even today. However, the number of users has dramatically declined since the nineteenth century, leading several researchers to conclude that these traditional signed language varieties are endangered (Davis 2005; Farnell 1995; Kelly and McGregor 2003; McKay-Cody 1997). Contemporary and historical use of the signed language among Native American groups needs to be documented, described, and stabilized through language maintenance and education to prevent imminent language loss.

Researchers have proposed that the signed systems used by hearing Indians as an alternative to spoken language became a primary signed language when acquired natively by tribal members who are deaf (Davis and Supalla 1995; Kelly and McGregor 2003; McKay-Cody 1997). These studies have reported the contemporary use of traditional PISL among both deaf and hearing Native American descendents of the Plains Indian cultural groups. Deaf and hearing individuals from other Native American groups, such as the Diné/Navajo (Davis and Supalla 1995) and the Keresan of the New Mexico Pueblo cultural area (Kelly and McGregor 2003) appear to sign a variety that is distinct from traditional PISL. Preliminarily, the available linguistic evidence suggests that these traditional ways of signing among Indian groups are distinct from American Sign Language (ASL). At the same time, striking similarities in linguistic structure between PISL and ASL (e.g., marked and unmarked handshapes, symmetry and dominance conditions, classifier forms, and nonmanual markers), have been documented (see Davis 2005, Davis and Supalla 1995, McKay-Cody 1997). In this paper, I report the documented cases of historical and contemporary signed language use among North American Indian groups, present preliminary linguistic descriptions and findings, and offer readers a link to a prototype on-line digital archive of PISL documentary materials. The author aims to expand this open access on-line linguistic corpus of PISL to include more documentary materials, translations, and analyses. This will encourage and facilitate language revitalization efforts, further research, and scholarship. The link to the on-line digital archive of PISL documentary materials is Plains Sign Language Digital Archive:


Clearly, there was (and still remains) an indigenous form of North American signed language, and its use has been historically documented as being widespread. Wurtzburg and Campbell (1995) make a compelling case for there having been a preexistent, well developed indigenous signed language across the Gulf Coast-Texas-northern Mexico area before European contact. In their historical study of “North American Indian Sign Language,” Wurtzburg and Campbell (1995, 160) define “sign language” as “a

Previous Page

Next Page