Plains Indian Sign Language Conference

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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.