Native American Sign Language

Native American Sign Language


When European colonists “discovered” America, they found that Natives used a sign language to communicate between tribes that spoke different languages. The most widely used variety of Native American sign language is known as Plains Indian Sign Language (PISL).

Historically, PISL was used among numerous American Indian communities of the Great Plains. In 1930, the U.S. government sponsored a conference on Indian Sign Language that resulted in production of a film, “The Indian Sign Language.”

Today, PISL is an endangered language. According to Jeffrey Davis, PhD, Professor of Sign Language Linguistics and Interpretation at the University of Tennessee, PISL “is being used and learned within some native groups in traditional storytelling, rituals, and conversational narratives by both deaf and hearing American Indians.”

To see an amazing collection of video clips from a gathering of Native American chiefs, medicine men and elders from more than a dozen tribes, demonstrating their sign languages, please visit Hand Talk, the web site developed by Jeffrey Davis with the support from the National Endowment for the Humanities and National Science Foundation for Documenting Endangered Languages.

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