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Native American Sign Language:

Jennifer Gummer

August 10, 2007

North American Indian Sign Language

Language is a systematic means of communicating by using sounds or conventional symbols, whereas sign language is a language consisting of hand shapes, facial expressions and movements used as a form of communication.  Although sign language was, and still is, primarily used for communication by the deaf community, it also holds a history among the Native Americans of North America.

Native North American languages are considered rather sophisticated.  By the late nineteenth century researchers concluded that over seventy different languages existed among the various native tribes in North America.   Furthermore, there also existed a great variety of dialects of the same language making it extremely difficult to be fluent in numerous languages.  The wide variety of languages and dialects was a result of natural causes, such as internal trouble, wars with other tribes, and the segregation which takes place when humanity is in the hunter state.  Thus, after a long period of time, articulate speech was developed, perfected and marked by the influences of the tribes surroundings resulting in various linguistic and dialectic boundaries.   As a result, Indian sign language, also known as Plains Sign Language was developed by Indian societies as a means of communication between the tribes of American Indians who spoke different vocal languages. 

            Indian sign language was used mainly by the nomadic tribes of the Great Plaines, the land bounded by the Mississippi on the east and the Rocky Mountains on the west.  This land was known for its famous mounted hunters of bison, the Plains Indians, Sioux, Cheyenne, Blackfoot and Kiowa.  Indian sign language appears to have evolved in the same way as spoken language, progressing gradually from the representational to the symbolic, from the picture to the symbol, but still remaining primarily representational or ideographic.  The symbols involved usually have a clear connection with the things they stands for: the form of an object, the movement of an action, or the placement of this or that.  Most of the signs are made with both hands at chest level, but preferably the right, as the left serves mainly as an auxiliary. 

Whereas the deaf community use a great deal of facial contortion and grimace, Indian sign language seldom use facial expressions, but maintain a composed and dignified expression as the sign are sufficient of themselves.  Moreover, one-hand free gestures are more numerous than two-hand ones, and evidently they are used more frequently and importantly in connected discourse.  Apart from being a connecting form of communication between tribes, Indian sign language was used for additional purposes.  For example, during powwows, the chiefs used sign language to hold the attention of their listeners, who had to follow their most subtle gestures in order to be able to answer.  In addition, Indian sign language was also indispensable on the warpath, where the success of a given maneuver depended on silence, and during the bison hunt, as it enabled different tribes to keep close to the herd and still be able to communicate with one another.   Today, many individuals from different backgrounds use Indian sign language, but the first whites to use Indian sign language were evidently the trappers known as Mountain Men, the missionaries, and men known as scouts who served as guides and interpreters for the army. 

Indian sign language is so faithful to nature and so natural in its expressions that it is likely that it will never die.  It has a practical utility, and should not be looked upon merely as a repetition of motions to be memorized from a limited list, but as a cultivated art, founded upon principles which can be readily applied by travelers.  Indian sign language may be used to advantage at a distance, which the eye can reach but not the ear, and still more frequently when silence or secrecy is desired.  



Clark, W. (1885).  Indian Sign Language.  Philadelphia:  L. R. Hamersly & Co.

Fronval, George & Daniel Dubois. (1985). Indian Signals and Sign Language.  New York:  Bonanza Books.

Tomkins, William. (1969).  Indian Sign Language.  New York:  Dover Publications, Inc. 



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