James Woodcock/Billings Gazette
Dr. Lanny Real Bird talks about a list of signs from the Plains Indian sign language that match a list of 400 vocabulary words he has developed for his class at the Little Big Horn College in Crow Agency.

Sign Languages: A Forgotten Part of Tribal Cultures

Richard Clark Eckert

Deaf First Peoples are viewing a recent Indian Country Today Media Network article with contempt as the article promotes a nocuous paradigm called auditory verbal training, sometimes disguised in pedagogic claims of enhancing speech and listening skills, and also known as “oralism.”

Campaigns against sign languages in the later portion of the 19th and early 20th centuries had eugenic, eudemic, and euthenic origins (social evolutionary thought). At the epicenter of those campaigns was the famous inventor Alexander Graham Bell. Critical examination of his writings reveals a focus on coerced cultural, structural, and marital assimilation. Why is ICTMN encouraging Indian country to buy into Anglo conformity for Deaf First Peoples?

RELATED: Wyatt’s Story: One Family’s Struggle to Educate a Special Needs Child

RELATED: Wyatt’s Story: One Family’s Struggle to Educate a Special Needs Child, Part 2

Theories used to rationalize a genocide in First Peoples were also aimed at Sign Language Peoples. The suppression of tribal languages was a key part of the curriculum waged against First Peoples. For Sign Language Peoples this was different. Although federal Indian schools and Deaf schools have their own histories, eugenicists like Bell sought to suppress tribal languages and sign languages. The suppression of tribal language and sign languages intersect one another with the use of Keep’s manual at Carlisle Indian School. The manual was originally designed to suppress sign language and then incorporated at Carlisle to suppress tribal languages.

Given the traumatic history of federal Indian boarding schools most Deaf Natives understand that tribal communities would be reluctant to send their children to a residential boarding school for the Deaf. Forcing Native parents to send their children to residential schools for the Deaf is inexcusable. At the same time, most Deaf First Peoples I know would argue that mainstream public schools in modern times are far worse than a Deaf boarding school experience in modern times because mainstreaming promotes linguistic deprivation and social isolation in reservation communities. With the ascendance of biomedical capitalism in the 21st century, the medical experthood claims that without their technology Native Deaf children will grow up to be illiterate or so distant from reservations that tribal cultural practices will not be learned. NONSENSE!

I’d like to offer some not so radical suggestions so that tribes can assist parents in making truly informed decisions for our children. Natives who are schooled in statistics—we need you to scrutinize the claims made by biomedical industries. Native social scientists and educators—we need you to critically examine the operational definitions used by those same industries. For example, the idea of experience some benefit in telephone use with a cochlear implant is an interesting claim. BUT what exactly does some benefit mean? Is that simply knowing the phone rang? With lights flashing Deaf Natives already know when the phone rings.

My point is that I would encourage tribes and parents to be skeptical of the illusion of inclusion that the biomedical industries promote. I would encourage tribes and parents to look to see if the same industries and experts advocating cochlear implants for Native children are not part of the same biomedical industries who have anti-Indian roots? Do you want to trust those whose existence is founded upon social evolutionary ideologies? Why not trust that Deaf Natives know more about attending Deaf schools than anyone else in tribal communities, certainly more that audiologists, speech pathologists, and surgeons? Why not listen to Deaf Native perspectives about mainstreaming versus residential schools? Deaf Natives have much to offer tribal communities—if you allow us to pursue our goal of recovering intertribal sign languages that were colonized by English speaking peoples. When you de-value sign language you devalue tribal heritage. WHY?

The Spanish explorer Cabeza De Vaca observed indigenous populations in the early 16th century using sign language as an intertribal language, a highly valued language of intertribal diplomacy. A system of sign language showed up in Spain and later France shortly thereafter, and was later exported to America under the auspices of European invention.

The evidence is thin, but we do know that tribal delegations and Deaf students in Washington, D.C. were observed communicating with each other—in sign language around 1880 (Mallery 1881), narratives describing tribal sign languages west of the Mississippi being understood by Deaf students in the New York School for the Deaf in 1823 (Ackerly 1824), and there are even early 20th century films of elders communicating in sign language.

While it is difficult to know precisely how much of American Sign Language in contemporary times has roots in tribal sign languages, it can be stated that sign language is a desirable, viable, and achievable alternative, bringing Deaf First Peoples closer to an indigenous ontology than spoken English ever can. No one wants to stomp on parental rights to choose what they think is best for their child. Yet, parents are seldom informed of the rich connection between sign language and tribal culture. Why?

Richard Clark Eckert is a member of the Bad River Band of Lake Superior Ojibwe. He received his doctorate degree from the University of Michigan in 2005. His forthcoming book “American Sign Language Peoples & Civil Society” expands on many of the themes presented in this essay.

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Michael Madrid's picture
Michael Madrid
Submitted by Michael Madrid on
I am a Viet-era disabled veteran and I've lost the majority of my hearing. I've considered learning sign language in anticipation of the day that I lose my hearing completely. I have read some material by Charles Eastman (of Wounded Knee I fame) about Native sign language and thought it great that it was the common bond between many tribes. Either way, I'm glad that some attention is being given to Native people with hearing disabilities.

riolo's picture
Submitted by riolo on
While Dr. Richard Clark Eckert is entitled to express his opinion (this is the U.S. where freedom of expression is highly valued), it is unfortunate that his article is highly critical of the parents who choose cochlear implant for their deaf children. It is like saying that the parents of Wyatt were wrong to put cochlear implant in him because, according to his conspiracy theory, they were misguided by biomedical industries. Being a parent is a hard job. Being an advocate for your child is infinitely hard job. We don’t need to lay more guilt on the parents of Wyatt by questioning their decision on cochlear implant. This is not to say that the history of signed languages in the tribes should be ignored. But, this has nothing to do with the struggles that the parents have with the schools. Just for the sake of argument, let's hypothesize that the parents choose a signed language with their adopted child. Belcourt School District No. 7 could still not accept the child because it does not have a teacher for deaf children. The child could still be sent to North Dakota School for the Deaf regardless of what approach that the parents use. To make it even worse, there is a slight or some increase in chance of being sexually assaulted at a boarding school (obviously because the lack of constant presence of parents or relatives). The onus is on the schools to be responsive to the child's needs regardless of whether the child uses a signed language, cochlear implant or both. The core problem lies in the system of the schools, not the lack of signed languages in tribes. It is outrageous that the schools refuse to be proactive to change their system to prevent the repeat of situation that the parents and their child went through. Joseph Pietro Riolo josephpietrojeungriolo@gmail.com Public domain notice: I put all of my expressions in this post in the public domain.

damaraparis's picture
Submitted by damaraparis on
Richard, Thank you for writing this article. The more articles written from the perspective of Deaf First Peoples, the better awareness can be raised. Too few of us are writing about the complicated intersectionality of being Deaf and Indigenous. I have long expounded the values of using tribal signed languages to communicate with Deaf tribal members. The more we educate, the better the issue becomes understood and addressed. Dr. Damara Goff Paris

Richard Clark Eckert
Richard Clark Eckert
Submitted by Richard Clark Eckert on
I was humbled by the positive feedback to this article on the ICTMN facebook page. It is quite obvious to me and a number of other Deaf First Peoples that there is a hunger to learn about tribal sign language(s). Most of us are not experts in this area, So much has been lost to colonization, but we are committed to pushing for cultural revitalization. After a little discussion, we decided to set up a Deaf First Peoples Resource Network group on Facebook. It was only set up yesterday, but I confident it will develop into a rich resource network where tribal members can learn about Deaf First Peoples. Dr. Richard Clark Eckert Bad River Band of Lake Superior Ojibwe and Deaf