Native Americans Gather for Plains Indian Sign Language Conference

From August 12th to August 15th, Native Americans from several different Plains Indian tribes will gather at the Northern Cheyenne Reservation in Montana to create a record of a language that is rapidly going extinct: Plains Indian Sign Language, also known as “hand talk.”  Although today it is used by only a few deaf Native Americans, before Europeans arrived in America it was widely used by both the deaf and hearing alike, and was the primary form of communication between tribes that did not share a language. It was also used for story-telling and rituals.

Over time, use of the language declined, replaced by spoken English for hearing tribe members and American Sign Language for deaf children.  According to Wikipedia, in 1885 over 110,000 Native Americans used the language regularly. Now, nobody is even sure how many people understand it, just that the number is tiny. According to the Billings Gazette, conference organizers hope that about 30 sign-talkers will attend the conference.

Ron Garritson, a sign talker who helped do fieldwork for the conference, told the Billings Gazette:

“Being able to carry on a fluent conversation, you’re running pretty short on who can do it. Most were either deaf or had grandparents who were deaf, and they learned the sign talk that way.”

The conference will bring together fluent Plains Indian signers for  the first time in 80 years. The last gathering of Plains Indian sign-talkers was in 1930. Tribal elders were filmed telling stories in hand talk, while a narrator translated the signs into spoken English. The focus of this conference will be on using the language to communicate, but of course linguists and anthropologists will be on hand to record participants signing and create a more complete record of this vanishing language.

The Yurok Language is Supposed to Be Dead

The Yurok Native American tribe has lived in northwestern California along the Pacific coast for centuries. Unlike many  Native American tribes, they still occupy a portion of their original territory and maintain many of their cultural traditions.  Like all tribes, however, their language is in danger.

The Yurok language was supposed to be extinct by now. Decades ago, linguists were predicting it would die out around 2010, along with the last generation that grew up speaking it. In  fact, the last native speaker, Archie Thompson, died last year.

However, Yurok has been making something of a comeback in recent years with aid from an unlikely corner: the local public school system. The New York Times reports that the language is taught as a foreign language in four California public high schools and two elementary schools. The classes are not restricted to Yurok tribe members.

According to Yurok teacher Carole Lewis, this is by design. She told the New York Times:

“The generation before me had an advisory group, and they said, ‘We want to teach the Yurok language to anybody who wants to learn it,’ because they were in a place where our language was disappearing off the face of the earth.”

In previous generations, Native American children were punished, often harshly, for speaking their language in school. So, this is a nice reversal.  Rick Jordan, the principal of Eureka High School, told the New York Times:

“A hundred years ago, it was our organizations that were beating the language out of folks, and now we’re trying to re-instill it — a little piece of something that’s much bigger than us.”

Yurok is now the most widely taught Native American language in the state of California. Want to hear what it sounds like? Listen to this recording of a traditional story from the University of California, Berkeley.

Photo Credit: Attribution Some rights reserved by Michael Fraley

Dream Inspires Native American Language Activist

Can you imagine hearing the lost language of your ancestors in a dream? Linguist and Wampanoag language activist Jessie Little Doe Baird claims that the inspiration for the Wampanoag Language Reclamation Project she founded came to her in a recurring dream she had as a young woman. She recounted the dream for the Lexington Minuteman:

“People were talking to me and they looked familiar. I knew these people but I didn’t personally know them. I had no idea what they were saying. I was in a place where everything had been burned … purposefully burned. There was a yellow house, and inside, circles of Indian people making circles, chanting. I’m going around this massive room listening,” said Baird. She tried to leave but was blocked. “Someone asked me: ‘What does this mean?’” But it wasn’t in English. “I don’t know,” Baird replied.

The dream inspired Baird to study linguistics at MIT, where she graduated with a Master’s degree in 2000. Read more

Kodiak Alutiiq Speakers Reinvent Their Language

Just last year, the Alutiiq, a group of Native Americans who live on the coasts of Alaska, were in danger of losing their language, the Kodiak dialect of Alutiiq, completely. The dialect is down to about 50 living speakers.

For the past four years, however, the Alutiiq Museum has been working on a project to document and preserve the language. Called Living Words, the project involves talking with and recording the elders who can still speak Alutiiq.

But in addition to documenting the language as it exists today, the Alutiiq are also looking to the future by adding new words.  According to the Kodiak Daily Mirror, tribal elders have been holding “New Words Councils” to create words for modern phenomena like text messages and ATVs. Read more