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

Back to the Book


conventionalized gesture language of the sort later attested among the Plains and neighboring areas.” Based on numerous early historical accounts, they report that the earliest and most substantive accounts is from the 1527 expedition for the conquest of Florida, lead by the Spanish conquistador Cabeza de Vaca who reported numerous occasions wherein native groups communicated with signs (1995, 154–55). According to the historical record, Cabeza de Vaca “also clearly distinguished which groups spoke the same language, which spoke different languages but understood others, and which groups did not understand others at all, except through the use of sign language” (1995, 155). Similar accounts were made by Coronado in 1541 (reported in Taylor 1978), and subsequent reports were made in the eighteenth century (e.g., Santa Ana in 1740 [reported in Mithun 1999]). Goddard (1979), and Wurtzburg and Campbell (1995) published papers about the role served by signed languages and some spoken native languages as lingua francas, and have discussed the pidgins, trade languages and “mixed” systems used among native groups. The generally accepted hypothesis among scholars (see Campbell 2000; Mithun 1999) is that North American Indian Sign Language originated and spread from the Gulf Coast, became the intertribal lingua franca of the Great Plains, and spread throughout the northwest territories of the United States and Canada (compare Goddard 1979; Taylor 1978; Wurtzburg and Campbell 1995). Further research of these topics is needed, but presently beyond the scope of this paper. The historical linguistic documents and ethnographic accounts that are the focus of this paper support that signed language was used beyond the Great Plains area and was evident across most of the major American Indian cultural areas (e.g., Southeast and Gulf Coast, Southwest, Plateau and Basin, Subarctic, Mesoamerica, and Northeast).

Attention to the rich legacy of historical linguistic documents that remain (essays, descriptions, illustrations, films) is needed in light of new linguistic theories. The indigenous origins of contemporary signed language use among Native American deaf and hearing signers across different geographic and cultural contexts must be documented. Further consideration must be given to the intergenerational use of highly elaborate signed communication systems that have been documented for hearing signing communities, even when deaf people are not present (e.g., historically on Martha’s Vineyard as well as currently and historically in some indigenous and monastic communities). In addition to signed language use in Deaf communities, this linguistic phenomenon (i.e., signing communities that are predominately hearing) has been and continues to be documented in several aboriginal communities around the world and is also evident in some occupational settings and monastic traditions (see, e.g., Davis and Supalla 1995; Farnell 1995; Johnson 1994; Kendon 1988, 2002; Kelly and McGregor 2003; Plann 1997; Umiker-Sebeok and Sebeok 1978; Washabaugh 1986a, 1986b).

More recently, some signed language linguists (Davis 2005; Davis and Supalla 1995; Johnson 1994; Farnell 1995; Kelly and McGregor 2003; McKay-Cody 1997) have documented contemporary signed language use among other North American linguistic groups—for example, Algonquian (Blackfeet) and Siouan (Assiniboine, Dakotan, Stoney) language groups as well as Navajo (Diné), Keresan Pueblo, Northern Cheyenne, Yucatan-Mayan, and others. In light of new field studies and linguistic theories, linguists have reexamined the documented occurrences of aboriginal signed language in North American and in other continents (e.g., Australia and South America). The evidence suggests that in addition to its documented history as a intertribal lingua franca, signed language was used intratribally for a variety of discourse purposes (e.g., storytelling, gender-specific activities, times when speech was taboo, ritual practices).

In this paper, I examine the documented film and written ethnographic accounts of North American Indians signing an assortment of topics, including different discourse types across a variety of settings and participants. Furthermore, I consider some of the historical connections between ASL and indigenous signed language varieties. Historic and contemporary uses of signed language have been documented in at least one dozen distinct North American language families (phyla). Certainly, signing may have been used by even more groups than these, but at least this many cases were documented in historical linguistic accounts. The archived data reveal that regardless of hearing status, signing was used by members from approximately thirty-seven distinct American Indian spoken language groups. Conventions for the classification of North American language families are followed (compare Campbell 2000; Mithun 1999). In each case, the published source is provided and documented cases of current use are highlighted. These historical and contemporary cases are presented in table 1.


Previous Page

Back to the Book