Studying Sign

Garrick Mallery

Garrick Mallery

Sign language, talking with hands, was once the common means of communication among North American Plains Indian tribes who spoke some 40 different languages. It was a complex language that could be used to negotiate alliances and trade agreements.  Within tribal groups the elders often used sign for storytelling and rituals, an act that lent more drama to the stories. 
          Today, Plains Indian sign language is considered an endangered language, as are many spoken tribal languages. A 2010 gathering on the Northern Cheyenne reservation brought together fluent sign-talkers from a number of northern Plains tribes. Also participating were linguists and persons speaking American Sign Language (used by persons who are deaf). The purpose was to study the variations and commonalities in signing.
          The event was reminiscent of a 1930 gathering that brought together chiefs and elders from twelve tribes. The National Anthropological Archives has black and white film of that event which captured elders telling stories in sign.
          One man with an early interest in Native American sign language was Garrick Mallery of the Smithsonian Institution. Native Americans who came to Washington for treaty talks were invited to his studio to demonstate signs. Mallery carefully sketched and described the movements of hands and body for each sign.

For examples of Indian sign language visit:

Photo courtesy National Archives


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