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date: 20 February 2019

Native American Signed Languages

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter highlights the linguistic study of Native American signed language varieties, which are broadly referred to as American Indian Sign Language (AISL). It describes how indigenous sign language serves as an alternative to spoken language, how it is acquired as a first or second language, and how it is used both among deaf and hearing tribal members and internationally as a type of signed lingua franca. It discusses the first fieldwork carried out in over fifty years to focus on the linguistic status of AISL, which is considered an endangered language variety but is still used and learned natively by some members of various Indian nations across Canada and the United States (e.g. Assiniboine, Blackfeet/Blackfoot, Cherokee, Crow, Northern Cheyenne, Nakoda/Lakȟóta, and Mandan-Hidatsa). The chapter also addresses questions of language contact and spread, including code-switching and lexical borrowing, as well as historical linguistic questions.

Keywords: American Indian Sign Language, signed language varieties, alternative languages, deaf and hearing, lingua franca, endangered languages, American Indian nations, language contact, code-switching, lexical borrowing


American Indian Sign Language (AISL), sometimes called “Hand Talk” or “Sign Talk,” historically served various social and discourse functions among the highly nomadic American Indian communities of the North American Great Plains and cultural groups bordering this expansive geographic area. Distinct from the American Sign Language (ASL) used in Deaf communities of the United States and Canada, AISL has undergone a dramatic decline since the nineteenth century, due in part to its replacement by English and, in some cases, ASL.

Linguistic and ethnographic documentation from both historical accounts and years of extensive documentary linguistic fieldwork demonstrate that Native American sign language was used at least since the eighteenth century and probably earlier for a variety of discourse purposes across the major American Indian cultural areas—the Southeast, Gulf Coast, Southwest, Great Plains, Plateau, Great Basin, Northeast, Subarctic, and Meso-American geographic areas. Evidently, a highly conventionalized and linguistically enriched sign language emerged as a common way of communicating among American Indian communities speaking so many different languages. Indigenous sign language was once so prevalent and widespread that it served as a lingua franca among many of the Indian nations of Native North America (Campbell, 2000; Davis, 2005, 2010; Mithun, 2001; Taylor, 1981, 1996; Umiker-Sebeok and Sebeok, 1978).

Traditionally, tribal members learned indigenous sign language natively as a common alternative to spoken language (i.e., as a signed lingua franca). It continues to be used today, in some instances as the primary language of deaf members in Native communities. Yet in modern times there has been a marked decrease in the transmission and use of American indigenous languages, affecting both spoken and signed languages. Because of a variety of historical, sociocultural, and sociolinguistic pressures there has been a major shift to the use of dominant languages like English, Spanish, and ASL. Consequently, most American indigenous languages are considered highly endangered. The replacement of native indigenous languages with dominant ones contributes to language loss, and there is an urgent need to document, preserve, and revitalize these languages (Austin and Sallabank, 2011; Crystal, 2000).

Although indigenous sign language is classified as an endangered language and the extant number of native signers is unknown, hundreds of North American Indians may still know and use it in some form and to varying degrees of proficiency. For example, I conducted fieldwork (2009–2015) that documented use of Plains Indian Sign Language (PISL) among both deaf and hearing Indians from several Indian nations of the United States and Canada, including the Northern Cheyenne [Tse’tsehestahese] of southeastern Montana, whose language is a member of the Algonquian language family; several Siouan language groups such as the Crow [Apsaalooke] of southeastern Montana and the Assiniboine [A’aniinen], Nakoda/Lakȟóta [Tetonwan], and Mandan-Hidasta [Moennitarri] of northern Montana; and the four tribes that compose the Blackfoot Nation (Blackfoot Confederacy or Niitsítapi) members of the Algonquian language family—namely, the Blood [Káínaa], Northern Piegan [Aapátohsipikáni], Southern Piegan or Montana Blackfeet [Aamsskáápipikani], and Alberta, Canada Blackfoot [Siksiká]. Remarkably, members of these Indian nations and others are still using and maintaining the traditional Native American ways of signing for a broad range of discourse purposes, including traditional storytelling, rituals, legends, prayers, jokes, games, conversations, and personal narratives (Davis, 2015).1

Historical Linguistic Evidence

The earliest descriptions of Indians signing were written by Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca in 1542 (Bonvillian, Ingram, and McCleary, 2009). American indigenous signed communication has been observed and described by scholars since the early 1800s (Dunbar, 1801; Gallaudet, 1847, 1848, 1852; Kroeber, 1958; Long, 1823; Mallery, 1881; Scott and SandervillUe, 1934; Umiker-Sebeok and Sebeok, 1978; Voegelin, 1958; West, 1960). Indigenous sign language has been documented for 12 American Indian language families or phyla, representing 41 spoken languages (table 1). Evidently, signing was used at varying levels of discourse within Native American tribes and families, spanning most contexts and encompassing many discourse genres. In the Native American communities where sign language once flourished, it was considered a prestigious or high-status form of communication commonly shared among chiefs, elders, interpreters, and medicine men and women within and between Indian nations of the Americas. By all accounts, the use and transmission of the signed lingua franca were extensive, and it served numerous sociolinguistic purposes and discourse functions for many generations and to an extent unparalleled by any other known current or previous indigenous sign language. In other words, this was an unparalleled historical occurrence of a signed language’s being used by this number of hearing community members, from different nations, across such a wide geographic expanse (Davis, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2010, 2011; Davis and Supalla, 1995).2

Table 1. Historical and Contemporary Sign Language Use among Native North American Language Families

Cultural Area

Language Phylum and Group

Published Sources (See Davis, 2010, for Additional Sources)


Campbell (2000, 153), Davis (2007, 2010, 2011, 2014, 2015), Mithun (2001, 327)


1. Arapaho = Atsina

Clark (1885), Maclean (1896), Mallery (1881), Scott & Sanderville (1934)


2. Blackfoot = Blood = Piegan

Davis (2007, 2010, 2011, 2014, 2015), Mallery (1881), Scott & Sanderville (1934), Weatherwax (2002)


3. Cheyenne

Burton (1862), Davis (2010, 2011, 2014, 2015), Maclean (1896), Mallery (1881), McKay-Cody (1997), Scott & Sanderville (1934), Seton (1918)


4. Cree

Long (1823), Mallery (1881), Scott & Sanderville (1934)


5. Fox = Sauk-Kickapoo

Long (1823), Mallery (1881)


6. Ojibwa = Ojibwe = Chippeway

Hofsinde (1956), Long (1823), Mallery (1881)


7. Shawnee

Burton (1862), Harrington (1938), Hofsinde (1956), Long (1823), Mallery (1881)


Campbell (2000:111), Mithun (2001:346)


8. Navajo = Dine

Davis & Supalla (1995)


9. Plains Apache = Kiowa-Apache

Fronval & Dubois (1985), Hadley (1891), Harrington (1938), Mallery (1881), Scott & Sanderville (1934)


10. Apachean

Mallery (1881)


11. Chiricahua-Mescalero

Mallery (1881)


12. Sarcee = Sarsi

Davis (2014, 2015), Scott & Sanderville (1934)


Campbell (2000:140), Mithun (2001:501)


13. Crow

Burton (1862), Mallery (1881), Real Bird (2012), Scott & Sanderville (1934)


14. Hidatsa = Gros Ventre

Mallery (1881), Real Bird (2012), Scott & Sanderville (1934)


15. Mandan

Maclean (1896), Real Bird (2012), Scott & Sanderville (1934)


16. Dakotan = Sioux = Ochethi Sakowin

Burton (1862), Farnell (1995), Long (1823), Mallery (1881), Seton (1918), Tomkins (1926)


17. Assiniboine = Stoney = Alberta

Farnell (1995), Mallery (1881), Scott & Sanderville (1934)


18. Omaha-Ponca

Long (1823), Mallery (1881)


19. Osage = Kansa

Harrington (1938), Long (1823)


20. Oto = Missouri = Iowa

Long (1823), Mallery (1881)


Campbell (2000:142), Mithun (2001:369)


21. Caddo

Harrington (1938)


22. Wichita

Harrington (1938), Mallery (1881)


23. Pawnee

Burton (1862), Harrington (1938), Mallery (1881), Long (1823)


24. Arikara = Ree

Mallery (1881), Scott & Sanderville (1934)


Campbell (2000:138), Mithun (2001:441)


25. Kiowa

Fronval & Dubois (1985), Hadley (1891), Harrington (1938), Mallery (1881), Scott & Sanderville (1934)


26. Tonoan = Tewa = Hopi-Tewa = Tano

Goddard (1979), Mallery (1881)


Campbell (2000:134), Mithun (2001:539)

Great Basin-Plains

27. Shoshone = Shoshoni

Burton (1862), Mallery (1881), Scott & Sanderville (1934)


28. Comanche

Harrington (1938), Mallery (1881)

Great Basin-Plains

29. Ute = Southern Paiute

Burton (1862), Mallery (1881)

Great Basin-Plateau

30. Northern Paiute = Bannock = Banak

Mallery (1881)


Campbell (2000:120), Mithun (2001:485)


31. Nez Percé = Nimipu = Chopunnish

Scott & Sanderville (1934)


32. Sahaptian

Mallery (1881)


Campbell (2000:120), Mithun (2001:477)


33. Coeur d’Alene

Teit (1930)


34. Flathead = Spokane = Kalispel = Selis

Scott & Sanderville (1934)


35. Shuswap, British Columbia

Boas (1890)


Campbell (2000:108), Mithun (2001:400)


36. Inuit = Inupiaq-Inuktitut

Hoffman (1897); Schuit (2012)


Campbell (2000:151), Mithun (2001:418)


37. Huron-Wyandot

Mallery (1881)


38. Iroquois

Mallery (1881)

XI. ZUNI (language isolate)

Campbell (2000:139), Mithun (2001:583)


39. Zuni = Zuñi = A:shiwi

Mallery (1881)


Campbell (2000:138), Mithun (2001:438)


40. Laguna Pueblo

Goldfrank (1923)


41. Keresan Pueblo

Kelly & McGregor (2003)

(*) Indigenous sign language use documented in the twenty-first century for some members.

Conceivably, the Indians’ use of sign language across the North American continent could have been influenced by the need to communicate with explorers and colonizers from diverse language backgrounds—as suggested, for example, by the pan-human use of gesture or pantomime in foreign language contexts. Several prominent researchers, however, have hypothesized that North American Indians used sign language prior to European contact, contributing to the development of a sign language lingua franca comparable to the pidgins, trade languages, and mixed systems used by some native groups (Campbell, 2000; Goddard, 1979, 1996; Mithun, 2001; Taylor, 1981, 1996; Wurtzburg and Campbell, 1995). Responding to the assumption that European contact was necessary for an alternative sign language to have emerged, Taylor (1978:224) maintained that “the Spaniards did not invent the sign language—a hypothesis that is scarcely credible in any event—since the earliest Spanish penetration of the Plains area, that of Coronado in 1541–1542, encountered Indians who were using signs.” Samarin (1987) challenged Taylor’s (1978) case for the existence of a pre-European contact sign language. Samarin offered no alternative interpretation but alluded to the notion that Indian sign language somehow developed following the arrival of Europeans, assuming that early explorers and colonizers used ad hoc gestures to communicate with the native peoples they encountered. Yet several notable scholars have re-examined the historical documentation, and like Taylor (1978, 1981, 1996) they have made compelling arguments for the existence of Indian sign language prior to European contact (Campbell, 2000; Goddard, 1979, 1996; Mithun, 2001; Umiker-Sebeok and Sebeok, 1978; Wurtzburg and Campbell, 1995). Based on the contents of numerous early accounts, Wurtzburg and Campbell (1995:164) concluded that “even if the Europeans started with ad hoc gestures, they soon learned the native system and used it for communication.” After all, numerous native groups already spoke many separate languages, and sign language could just as easily have emerged in these North American multilingual communities without the influence of explorers or colonizers. Supporting this view, sign language was observed by many European explorers upon initial contact with native groups of North America and was well documented by early scholars (Boas, 1890; Clark, 1885; Dunbar, 1801; Gallaudet, 1847, 1848, 1852; Long, 1823; Mallery, 1881). These historical accounts, however, may be open to different interpretations—such as the use of gesture for on-the-spot communication, the accompaniment of speech with gestures, or a gestural code shared among native groups of the areas in question.

Besides the high degree of linguistic diversity, the lack of a single dominant Native American language may have been another reason for the adoption of signed language over any particular spoken language to serve as a lingua franca. Whatever the origins, it has been well documented that a signed lingua franca emerged and was used for many generations across a wide geographic expanse, likely enhanced by the post-colonization rise of horse nomadism as well as the intensive language contact that ensued (Davis, 2005, 2010).

Plains Indian Sign Language

Although American Indian sign language varieties are sometimes all broadly categorized as AISL, the most well-documented variety is Plains Indian Sign Language (PISL).3 Prominent scholars suggest that the sign language originated in the Gulf Coast region of western Louisiana and Texas (Goddard, 1979; Wurtzburg and Campbell, 1995), then spread northward, trade being a major factor for the diffusion of the sign language across the Great Plains cultural areas during the nineteenth century (Taylor, 1978). Indigenous sign language served various social and discourse functions both within and among dozens of native communities of these areas, representing a linguistic, cultural, and geographic region that once spanned over one and a half million square miles (4.3 million square kilometers)—an area similar to that of the current European Union’s 28 member nations combined. As the use of sign language expanded into larger spheres of communication, it became highly conventionalized and came to function as a lingua franca for international purposes—once being used widely among members of numerous Indian nations as shown in table 1.

PISL also functioned as an “alternate sign system,” meaning a separate, internal language completely autonomous from the speech used by primarily speaking-hearing communities sharing the same dialect. Dispelling the common assumption that manual signing is used only when speech is unavailable, not only could Indian sign languages be used with trading partners and military allies across linguistic barriers, but they were also summoned on certain occasions when spoken conversation was possible but silence was preferred (e.g., in ceremonial settings or when hunting), as well as in conjunction with storytelling and formal oratory.

However, not all Plains Indian tribes used the sign language. Historically, up to modern times, the largest numbers of signers have been identified among the Crow, Blackfeet/Blackfoot, and Northern Cheyenne, with the most proficient sign users coming from Indian Nations of the North Central Plains. PISL most likely emerged as the standard variety because of the central role it served historically and linguistically (Davis, 2010, 2011, 2014, 2015; West, 1960). Linguistic researchers have identified and described two other major Indian lingua francas: Mobilian Jargon (a variety of Choctaw-Chickasaw) of the Southeast and Chinook Jargon of the Northwest. Additionally, several European and Indian spoken languages may have served as lingua francas at different times and to varying degrees (Goddard, 1979, 1996; Mithun, 2001; Taylor, 1978, 1981, 1996).

While the PISL variety emerged as one of the historical lingua francas of the Great Plains and spread to cultural areas bordering this geographic region, there are different PISL dialects (e.g., Blackfeet/Blackfoot, Crow, and Northern Cheyenne). We also find other distinct American Indian signed language varieties being used beyond the Great Plains area. For example, sign language researchers have conducted fieldwork among signing communities such as the Inuit-Nunavut (Arctic, Canada); Navajo (Arizona); Keresan Pueblo (New Mexico); Maya of western Guatemala and the Yucatán, Chiapas, and Oaxaca states/regions of Mexico (Meso-America); and other American indigenous communities. Strikingly, in all of the cases reported here, deaf community members have played a significant role in the transmission of indigenous sign language (Davis, 2010, 2011, Davis and Supalla, 1995; Fox Tree, 2009; Schuit, 2012).

Even though the origins of PISL remain speculative, it most likely developed from the emergent signing of tribal or clan members who were deaf or had deaf family members—comparable to the ways home sign or village signing have emerged. Most significantly, PISL has been transmitted intergenerationally. Besides being used as an alternative or accompaniment to spoken language both intratribally and intertribally, it has also been acquired as a native or first language for many generations. As PISL was transmitted across generations and spread internationally, it developed greater lexical and grammatical complexity, was acquired by both deaf and hearing community members, and served a broad array of discourse functions and communication purposes. Spreading from smaller native groups to larger geographic areas and spheres of interaction, PISL expanded into a lingua franca for international purposes. Ultimately the use of PISL attained a geographic extent and range of discourse functions unparalleled by any known current or previous indigenous sign language (Davis, 2010, 2011, 2014, 2015).

Degree of Language Endangerment

During the nineteenth century, tens of thousands American Indians were reported to have known sign language, whereas today there are only around a hundred known signers (Davis, 2014, 2015). Since PISL is known mainly by elderly hearing people and some middle-aged or older deaf people, Lewis, Simons, and Fennig (2014) classify it as a moribund (i.e., declining, waning, or dying) sign language. Up until the mid-twentieth century and even later, public education policies prohibited the use of native spoken and signed languages, which were further discouraged from being used in boarding schools or residential school settings that many Indian children were forced to attend. Moreover, deaf children from Native communities in the United States and Canada most often attended schools for the deaf where they learned ASL instead of traditional varieties of Indian sign language. As a consequence of such intensive language and cultural contact over the past hundred years or so, the use of traditional American Indian sign language varieties has declined dramatically. English has become the dominant language in most public and many social contexts for most individuals from American Indian backgrounds; likewise, ASL has become the dominant sign language even among deaf tribal members and their families. It is worth noting that ASL is often called the “white man’s way of signing” among traditional Native American signing communities as a way to further distinguish it from AISL or PISL varieties.

Due in part to the replacement of PISL by English and, in some cases, ASL, there is an extreme urgency to documenting, preserving, and revitalizing it. PISL has been sustained over the past several generations chiefly by tribal elders who have continued to use it and to teach it to their children and grandchildren, along with deaf tribal members who have acquired it as a fluent means of communication within their own native communities. The gravity of the situation leading to language shift or loss has become even more critical as some elders well recognized as the most fluent signers have passed away and others are in declining health.

That indigenous languages have survived and continue to be learned and used is remarkable, especially considering the pressures historically imposed on Native American groups to acquire and use the dominant spoken or signed languages of the larger society or community. Even though PISL is considered a highly endangered language variety, it continues to be learned and used within Plains tribal groups and among knowledgeable members of Indian nations as an international lingua franca. In the face of demands to assimilate linguistically and culturally, it serves as a first, second, or third language for both deaf and hearing members of certain American Indian communities. In Montana, for example, PISL can be studied and taken in fulfillment of college and university second- or third-language requirements. Most importantly, many tribal members of the younger generation, including both deaf and hearing individuals, are keenly interested in learning and maintaining the languages and cultural traditions of their ancestors. The most adept Native American signers, as well as American Indian leaders and community members, have generally recognized and embraced the need to record and preserve their sign language traditions and cultural practices for this and future generations, with the condition and intent that the documentary materials are studied and treated with the utmost respect when made available outside Native American communities.

Documentary Linguistics

For documentary linguistics fieldwork and language revitalization to be successful, it is essential to involve native users of the endangered language. With support from the National Science Foundation’s Documenting Endangered Languages Program, I have been documenting and describing the contemporary uses of PISL in collaboration with deaf and hearing members of Native American signing communities—the first linguistic studies and ethnographic fieldwork in more than 50 years on sign language usage by native signers from several major Plains Indian cultural groups. As detailed in table 2, since 2009, I have filmed approximately 25 deaf and hearing signers of the PISL variety from among the Northern Cheyenne, Blackfeet/Blackfoot, Crow, Mandan-Hidasta, Assiniboine, Nakoda/Lakȟóta, and other Indian nations (Davis, 2011, 2014, 2015). My fieldwork has also involved interpreters/translators, ethnographers, and linguistic researchers who are Native community members and allies.

Table 2. Indian Nations Studied in Author’s Documentary Linguistics Fieldwork (2009–2015)

Northern Cheyenne [Tse’tsehestahese]

Crow [Apsaalooke]

Mandan-Hidasta [Moennitarri]

Assiniboine [A’aniinen]

Nakoda/Lakȟόta [Tetonwan]

Blackfeet [Amskapi Pikuni]

Blackfoot [Aapátohsipikáni = Piikáni = Piegan]

Blood = Káínaa

Sarcee = Tsuu T’ina

Other contemporary cases of Indian sign language have been reported in a film titled Talking without Words, produced by the University of Montana Regional Learning Project in collaboration with the Indian Education Division of the Montana Office of Public Instruction. In the film, Lanny Real Bird (Crow) and Rob Collier (Nez Percé) shared their experiences learning sign language as children from the elders. Later, Vernon Finley (Kootenai) explains that “the sign language has become almost extinct, and there are very few people who understand it, and there are some of us that are learning it and reviving it, but in the past, even two generations ago when the people spoke, even though they didn’t have to, as they were speaking they were signing as well” (Thompson, 2007).

Previous Studies

Prior to my recent fieldwork (2009–2015) no formal survey of Plains Indian signers had been carried out for more than a generation. From 1956 to 1957, LaMont West (Indiana University) conducted anthropological linguistic fieldwork to document PISL, focusing primarily on groups of the Northern Plains cultural area. West was among the first anthropologists to use motion picture equipment in the field for the documentation of language; during his seminal fieldwork, he filmed more than 20 hours of signing, produced by 122 adept signers engaged in various conversations and types of discourse. However, his extensive, two-volume dissertation (West, 1960) was never published. In it he documented and described signing as still practiced not only during intertribal gatherings but also in storytelling and conversation among speakers of the same language. He identified two major PISL dialect groups: North Central Plains dialect, referred to as Plains Standard, and Far Northern Plains dialect, referred to as Far Northern or Storytelling dialect, which was used mainly in the Canadian provinces of Alberta, British Columbia, Manitoba, and Saskatchewan. His fieldwork documented that the Plains sign variety was known by members of groups throughout the Plains, Great Basin, and Plateau cultural areas, and that the dialect differences among individuals and groups did not seriously impede communication (West, 1960, 2:70). West hypothesized that sign language spread from the Southeast/Gulf Coast cultural areas into the Southern Plains and northward into the Central and Northern Plains, a notion that has been supported by other renowned anthropological linguists (Goddard, 1979, 1996; Mithun, 2001; Taylor, 1978, 1981, 1996; Wurtzburg and Campbell, 1995).

West’s fieldwork was a remarkable undertaking, though only 20 percent of his participants were women, who mainly served as translators for their husbands or male family members. He also did not consider the signing of deaf tribal members and how that might or might not have contributed to the sign proficiency of the hearing tribal and family members. Although West documented signers with deaf family members, he did not consider the role PISL played when acquired as one’s primary language first. In other words, he focused on the role of PISL as an alternative to spoken language.

Likewise, Brenda Farnell (1995) conducted anthropological fieldwork and documented the use of sign language for storytelling among the Assiniboine/ Nakoda/LakȟótaNakoda. She reported that “fluent sign talkers are not common but can be found in various locations on Plains reservations, among elders who learned it as young people and where deafness in a family or among old people [has] preserved its usefulness (e.g., on the Northern Plains, at Fort Belknap, Crow, Northern Cheyenne, and Blackfeet reservations in Montana, and at the Blood Reserve in Canada)” (Farnell, 1995:1–2). Farnell’s research concentrated on signing or gesture as an accompaniment to speaking (i.e., its ad hoc role) among hearing members of indigenous communities. However, in most situations of contact between signed and spoken languages, we find not only signing that co-occurs with speech but also signing that occurs without speaking (Davis and Supalla, 1995). Some of the most proficient signers are adept at code-switching between signing with or without speech (i.e., cross-modality).

My own fieldwork has taken into account both secondary and primary patterns of acquisition (L1 and L2) and other linguistic outcomes like multilingualism and code-switching (Davis, 2011, 2014, 2015). As a result, I have documented and described instances of American indigenous signed language fulfilling a wide variety of discourse functions and purposes, ranging from in-group to international communication. Rather than viewing primary (L1) and alternate (L2) language outcomes dichotomously, we can observe how they are interdependent (i.e., complementary and not mutually exclusive). I also maintain that this line of research offers important clues about the origins or emergence of indigenous sign language. Specifically, as the village-based tribal sign language expanded into a lingua franca for international purposes, signing was often used along with speech or as an alternative to speaking by many Indians from different tribes and nations. Still, the local sign language variety continued to serve as the primary language for deaf Indians and their families, as well as a secondary other community members.

Language Emergence and Acquisition Patterns

Linguists investigating various types of sign language among nascent or native communities around the world have been taking into account both alternate and primary patterns of acquisition and use among deaf and hearing community members—for example, sign types ranging from home signing (Davis and Supalla, 1995; Goldin-Meadow, 2003, 2005), which emerge in one generation within families with deaf members, to full-fledged sign languages that are transmitted widely and acquired for many generations, such as ASL and PISL. Around the world today, sign language is acquired and transmitted primarily (and predominantly) by members of the Deaf cultural group. In contrast, in cases of indigenous signing, sign language is typically acquired by both deaf and hearing members of the community (e.g., Davis and McKay-Cody, 2010; Davis and Supalla, 1995; McKay-Cody, 1997; Nonaka, 2007, 2009).

Globally, across these types of sign language communities and among the community members, we find that signing is used to varying degrees of proficiency, ranging from signs that accompany speech to signing without speech to signing that functions similarly to a primary sign language. We also find that the secondary (or alternate) sign language serves as the primary sign language for some tribal members. I have posited that these ways of signing, involving both signed and spoken linguistic modalities and different degrees of linguistic proficiency, are best examined along a multilingual communication continuum (Davis, 2010, 2011, 2014, 2015). Given the multilingual nature of American indigenous communities, it is not surprising that we find different sign types (home signs and conventionalized signs) and sign dialects, as well as lexical borrowing, code-mixing, and code-switching as major linguistic outcomes.

In recent times researchers have conducted extensive comparative studies of signed and spoken languages and of the emergence of natural sign language in the search for language universals (e.g., Goldin-Meadow, 2003, 2005; Sandler and Lillo-Martin, 2006; Sandler et al., 2005). Fundamentally, signed languages differ from spoken languages because of how the visual-spatial-gestural modality shapes certain linguistic features and outcomes. Indeed, some of the most striking evidence about human language universals and the differing effects of language modality comes from sign systems that have emerged within the span of one, two, or three generations. A major theoretical linguistics issue has to do with language age in generations, as well as pidginization and Creole-like processes that could be driving some of these language outcomes, such as the previous development and spread of trade languages or third-language systems like the Plains signed lingua franca. (Also, see Davis, 2010, 2011 for further description discussion.)

Village-Based Signing

American indigenous sign language varieties probably emerged from the home- or village-based signing of community members who were deaf (Davis, 2010, 2011). This pattern of language development is comparable to that in other indigenous or village-based signing communities that have been well documented; e.g., Al-Sayyid Bedouin Sign Language in a desert community of southern Israel and Warlpiri Sign Language of far north Queensland, Australia (Kendon, 2004; Kwek, 1991; Sandler et al, 2005, 2006; Umiker-Sebeok and Sebeok, 1978; Zeshan and de Vos, 2012). Recently, an increasing number of anthropologists, linguists, and other scholars have been studying indigenous and village types of sign languages worldwide (Davis, 2007, 2010, 2011; Kwek, 1991; Nonaka, 2007, 2009; Pfau, Steinbach, and Woll, 2012; Zeshan and de Vos, 2012). Tragically, all documented indigenous and village sign languages are considered endangered or have already vanished. Paradoxically, the endangerment of indigenous sign languages is most likely due to the success and spread of the sign languages of urban Deaf communities, such as ASL, which has resulted in pressure on deaf indigenous community members to abandon their native signed languages (Davis and McKay-Cody, 2010).

While there are striking similarities between “deaf signing villages” and American indigenous sign language communities, there are also distinct differences. For example, village-based signed languages have emerged in communities with a high incidence of genetic deafness and are typically used among members of the clan or village; that is, they are not spread nationally or internationally. In contrast, American indigenous signed languages like PISL have long served multiple discourse functions and have been used across vast geographical areas. In contrast to home signing, which typically occurs in one family for a single generation, PISL has been maintained and transmitted multigenerationally. As the use of indigenous sign language spread from villages to larger and more international spheres of communication, it became highly conventionalized, came to function as a sign language lingua franca, was learned as a first or second language by both deaf and hearing members of some Native American communities locally and internationally, and was used by many hearing Indians across a large geographic expanse. As pointed out earlier, among the North American Native communities where indigenous signing once flourished for many generations, it was considered a prestigious or high-status language commonly shared among chiefs, elders, interpreters, and medicine men and women across a wide range of language families.

The Quest for American Sign Language Origins

In sign language studies, it has been widely accepted for many years that ASL developed in part from the sign language used by deaf members of seventeenth-century American communities such as that on the Massachusetts island of Martha’s Vineyard (Groce, 1985). It has also long been held that ASL borrowed heavily from French Sign Language, which was imported for the purpose of educating American deaf children beginning in the early 1800s (Lane, 1984). While these cases of early contact are frequently cited in the sign language literature, the historical contact between early European signing communities and American Indian signing communities is sometimes mentioned but rarely if ever described in the sign language literature of recent times. I have examined the historical contact between American Indians and deaf European Americans from seventeenth-century colonization until today (Davis, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2010, 2011). It is worth noting that American Indians inhabited the areas colonized by the first European immigrants—including Martha’s Vineyard (Groce, 1985). Hence, contact between deaf European Americans and Indians likely occurred as early as the seventeenth century.

The historical evidence suggests that sign language contact between American Indians and deaf European Americans could have occurred in several ways. For example, some of the oldest residential schools for the deaf, established in the early 1800s, were located in states and geographic areas where Indians used the sign language lingua franca. Historical records indicate that frequent contact took place between American Indians who signed and students and faculty at those schools (Mallery, 1881). Other deaf European Americans also may have interacted with American Indians who commonly used sign language as a principal means of communication. Furthermore, between 1847 and 1890, early scholarly publications prominently featured lexical descriptions of Indian sign language, and those publications were widely distributed to educators and deaf schools through the periodical American Annals for the Deaf. Thomas H. Gallaudet, co-founder of the first school for deaf students in the United States in 1817, used the Dunbar (1801) and Long (1823) descriptions of the language of signs used among certain North American Indians to strengthen the case that “the natural language of signs” was essential to teaching and communicating with the deaf (Gallaudet, 1847–1848; also reported in Davis, 2006, 2007, 2010). Thus it is plausible that during this formative historical period American Indian signs were introduced to deaf students.

Additional contact between American Indians and deaf people likely occurred. For example, the New Mexico School for the Deaf and the School for Indians were constructed next to each other in Santa Fe in the late nineteenth century. Indian children who were deaf also began attending some state residential schools for the deaf around the United States during the historical period that sign language was commonly used among Indian groups. Some deaf children from Indian families first acquired the alternate signed language as a primary language before attending schools for the deaf and learning ASL as a second language (Davis and McKay-Cody, 2010).

I have conducted lexicostatistical analyses to determine if there was historical language contact between early ASL and PISL (Davis, 2007, 2010, 2011). The search for cognates between signed languages is especially difficult because a percentage of lexical similarity could be attributable to non-historical factors. Specifically, the potential for shared visual symbolism between genetically unrelated signed languages—the iconicity factor—is one of the more challenging aspects of this line of research (Guerra Currie, Meier, and Walters, 2002). My studies identified a 50-percent lexical similarity was identified between historical varieties of ASL and PISL. These findings suggest that ASL and PISL are separate languages—that is, they are unlikely to be genetically related or to have a common language ancestor. Still, 50 percent is a high degree of lexical similarity and suggests possible lexical borrowing, which likely occurred as a consequence of language contact between PISL and ASL signers.

To summarize, the evidence of contact between AISL and ASL has been corroborated by two main historical sources: (1) nineteenth-century descriptions of Indian signs, which were published and widely distributed to educators at schools for deaf children around the country; and (2) historical accounts (e.g., of American Indians visiting residential schools for deaf students during the nineteenth century) and the close proximity of some schools for the deaf to schools for Indian children. Also, because of the wide geographic spread and status of the Plains Indian sign language lingua franca prior to and leading into the twentieth century, deaf European American individuals could have come into regular contact with American Indians who signed.

American Indian Sign Language Linguistics Corpus and Website

The AISL documentary linguistics corpus, central to the findings reported here, encompasses both legacy and contemporary historical documentary linguistic materials collected from two main sources: (1) Indian sign language legacy materials from the late 1700s through the mid-1900s, which form a major collection at the Smithsonian Institution; and (2) film footage of AISL native signers spanning more than 80 years up to today, collected from anthropological, linguistic, and ethnographic fieldwork. Thus the AISL corpus spans the eighteenth to twenty-first centuries, represents many generations of signers, includes more than one endangered language, features a variety of discourse genres, and encompasses multiple linguistic modalities: written, spoken, and signed.

It is anticipated that the indigenous sign language digital corpus and the research findings reported here will promote the development of teaching curricula for younger generations while engaging key stakeholders from Native signing communities in documentary linguistic research. To encourage further studies of Native American Sign Language, I maintain the research website Besides raising awareness, it also makes the documentary materials more readily accessible to those most interested in studying and learning about indigenous sign language in intertribal and international communities. It offers linguists and scholars from multiple disciplines the first-hand opportunity to explore the historical and contemporary uses of indigenous signed and spoken language, as well as offering abundant information about the ambient Indian cultures and traditions.

Linguistic Descriptions of PISL

My preliminary linguistic analyses have shown that PISL is a full-fledged language that can be analyzed at all linguistic levels—phonemic, morphemic, syntactic, semantic, and pragmatic (Davis, 2010, 2011). PISL has a distinctly developed phonological system comparable to that of other signed languages, such as an abundance of minimal pairs—lexical signs contrasting according to a single hand configuration, location, or movement (Davis, 2010). Most strikingly, PISL appears to be typologically similar to other sign languages of the world, characterized by certain spatial-grammatical features, verb inflections, and classifier-like constructions. Tense is indicated by words comparable to adverbs (e.g., today, tomorrow, yesterday, or since). When they occur, time indicators are at the beginnings or ends of phrases or sentences. I have also identified other lexical and grammatical features, such as question formation, negation, pronominal forms, and possession.

The morphosyntactic processes identified thus far in PISL are highly productive, generating distinct lexical categories, such as nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs, and so forth, as well as compounds, polysemous forms, and a variety of predicates composed of indicating, depicting, and pointing signs common among sign languages. There are also many examples of rich use of metaphor in the PISL corpus, including metonyms, hyponyms, and hypernyms (see Davis, 2010, for descriptions).

Basic Syntax

While my linguistic research of PISL is still under way, the data collected and analyzed thus far show PISL to have basic SOV word order—also the most common word order in the ambient spoken languages, and among the world’s languages in general. The following examples are drawn from historical linguistic sources (Lakȟótan Chief Red Horse’s account of the Battle of Little Bighorn rendered in sign language and /recorded in 1881; Davis, 2010:154).

SOV parameters

PISL example

noun + postposition


“There were Two-Kettles among the Sioux.”4

adverb + verb


“The Sioux went quickly.”

noun + quantifier


“four women”

verb + negative


“The white soldiers attacked quickly, so [we] did not speak.”

The following are additional examples of PISL sentences (Davis, 2010:154−159):


“They (he and he) exchange weapons and war bonnets.”


“Five springs ago, I, with many Sioux Indians, took down and packed up our lodges and moved from the Cheyenne River to the Rosebud River.”

While SOV word order is seemingly predominant, it is not the only word order type evident in PISL. We also find OV, used with null actors, and OSV, used for topicalization. The null argument construction, common in signed languages, occurs only when the argument has been previously mentioned and is understood to be the topic of the discourse. In topicalization, the signer makes a part of the sentence the topic by moving it to the front of the sentence.5 The following are examples of null actors and topicalization (Davis 2010:154).

Null Actor


“[We] killed all of those white soldiers.”



“I saw two officers, both having long, blond hair.”

The existence of multiple possible word orders caused some degree of confusion in historical analyses of PISL. Addressing this issue, West (1960:93) aptly classified the major theories of PISL syntax as being of three main camps:

  • PISL has a fixed SOV word order (Kroeber, Tomkins, Tylor).

  • PISL has flexible word order, of two types (Mallery, West): pragmatically driven and spatially driven.

  • PISL has a syntax directly based on spoken language (Kroeber).

However, SOV seems to be the basic or predominant word order. We do not see orders like VOS and OVS. It is worth noting that “flexible word order” and the use of null arguments and topicalization are typical of signed languages of the world.

Recursion, considered an important facet of descriptive syntax, is abundantly evident in the PISL corpus.6 The following example of recursion is also from Lakȟótan Chief Red Horse’s account of the Battle of Little Bighorn (rendered in sign language and recorded in 1881; Davis, 2010:159).


“The Sioux fight the officer.”


“The officer is the bravest (that) the Sioux have ever fought.”


“The Sioux say (that) the officer is the bravest (that) the Sioux have ever fought.”


As can be seen in the sample sentences above, compounding is a very productive morphological process in PISL. Consider these examples (Davis 2010:144):




“white man, non-Native American”


“white soldier”


“white officer”


“black man”


“president of the United States”


“medical doctor”




“married man”



The following examples of compound signs, signed by Richard Sanderville (Blackfoot), come from the 1934 films of Scott and Sanderville.7




“deaf mute”


“to disobey”






“to advise”

Of course, it is plausible that certain compound signs may have been PISL translations of spoken words, and there may also have been some translation of signs into verbal language. The PISL compounds produced by Sanderville probably could not have been compounded in that order if not already syntactically constructed that way. These compounds reflect that PISL is a head-initial language, a marked feature of SOV-type languages; this is in contrast to the compound forms of English, a head-final language (e.g., house-white vs. white-house). This appears to be an instance where morphology and syntax are very tightly interwoven.

Taylor (1981, 1996) suggests that the heavy use of descriptive compounds in word coinage in the Plains spoken languages may actually go back to the use of such compounds in the Plains sign language. For example, the PISL sign for lie is a minimal pair with the sign for true. In contrast to true, produced with a single index finger moving from the location of the mouth, lie is executed with the two-finger, V-handshape. In previous times, this sign was commonly translated as “fork-tongue,” equivalent to “lie” or “false” in English. Another example is the QUESTION-FORM (Q-form) commonly signed upon greeting another or as a discourse marker at the beginning of an utterance (e.g., “Hello, how are you?”). Some readers may be familiar with this sign from the casually racist “Injun” trope in which a Native American holds up an open hand and says, “How” as a greeting. Whatever the etymology of the sign, it came to serve as a discourse opening or to function as a wh-question (e.g., who, what, where, when, or how) marker (Davis, 2010; Mallery, 1881; West, 1960).

In brief, the transfer of lexical and semantic material between PISL and ambient native spoken languages could have occurred in either direction, and this remains another promising area for future investigations.

Lexical Comparisons

Do the documented cases of North American Indian sign language constitute one language with a variety of dialects, or a variety of distinct signed languages? To address this question, I have examined the degree of genetic relatedness between historical and contemporary varieties of PISL (see Davis, 2007, 2010, 2011). Specifically, I have conducted lexical similarity studies and linguistic assessments of more than a thousand lexical signs extracted from written, illustrated, and filmed sources documenting the sign language of North American Indians from five historical periods (the 1800s, 1820s, 1920s, 1930s, and 2000s).

My comparisons revealed an 80- to 92-percent range of lexical similarity (cognates) between historical and contemporary PISL varieties. The high percentage of lexical similarity suggests that the PISL varieties compared are dialects of the same language from similar origins—that is, genetically related members of the same language family. My lexical similarity studies are among the largest of this kind, although my comparative studies of PISL dialects are ongoing. Additional research is needed before more definitive conclusions can be reached about the number of PISL dialects and distinct varieties of North American indigenous sign language. Still, given the history of language contact and loss of sign language resulting from pressures to use English and, in some cases, ASL, it is striking that the core lexicon of PISL has remained relatively stable for at least the past 200 years. Moreover, the high percentage of lexical similarity between the sign lexicons from signers of different spoken language groups (e.g., Blackfeet/Blackfoot, Northern Cheyenne, and Crow) illuminates the question of mutual intelligibility. Though different sign language dialects are evident, the large number of cognates suggests that these lexical signs could have been commonplace during the historical period when the use of Plains sign language lingua franca was widespread.


This chapter has reviewed the first fieldwork carried out in over 50 years to focus on the linguistic status of AISL. It describes how indigenous sign language serves as an alternative to spoken language, how it is acquired as a first or second language, how it is used among deaf and hearing tribal members, and how it has been used internationally as a type of lingua franca. It has taken into account both signed and spoken indigenous languages collected from historical and contemporary sources in order to advance our awareness of linguistic universals, language ecology and evolution, and the conveyance of human language in signed and spoken modalities.

Regardless of physical language modality (signed or spoken), we find universal patterns and a similar array of linguistic features among languages. Yet PISL has linguistic properties more comparable to conventionalized types of signed language common among Deaf communities worldwide than to the ambient spoken languages. Further research is anticipated to compare PISL with the spoken American Indian languages in the same environment, which are typically polysynthetic inflectional (Yamamoto and Zepeda, 2004). Along these lines, the AISL corpus described here will enable researchers to compare the linguistic properties of PISL with those of the ambient indigenous spoken languages. Paradoxically, although sign languages around the world are still considered morphologically very rich, they have been found to use relatively few affixes (Sandler et al., 2005; Sandler and Lillo-Martin, 2006).

The research reviewed here also draws attention to language endangerment issues and highlights ways to make the study of indigenous sign language more accessible. It brings attention to an important yet sometimes overlooked part of American Indian cultural and linguistic heritage, thus raising awareness about this subject and contributing to the revitalization of traditional indigenous ways of signing.

Most importantly, the documentary linguistics fieldwork reported here shows that indigenous signed language is still being learned natively by some tribal members, their families, and other members of certain American Indian communities and nations. Expert signers have been identified from several American Indian nations in the United States and Canada, including the Blackfeet/Blackfoot, Northern Cheyenne, Crow, Assiniboine, and Nakoda/Lakȟóta. Among the most proficient signers identified and filmed are individuals keenly interested in teaching others the sign language as well as informing the descriptions of indigenous sign language patterns of use and lexical-grammatical features. Both deaf and hearing tribal members are continuing to play a vital role in the development and transmission of indigenous sign language as a native language. Hopefully, the international/intertribal connections and continuation of historical traditions into modern times will enable indigenous languages like PISL to be learned, used, and studied for many generations.


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(1) The research reported here has involved many Native American collaborators, who have so generously shared their knowledge of indigenous signed languages. I am grateful to them for assisting me with the development of the AISL linguistics corpus, but I take responsibility for the descriptions and interpretations presented here. I acknowledge grant and fellowship support from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the National Science Foundation’s Documenting Endangered Languages Program (BCS-0853665, BCS-1027735, BCS-1110211, BCS-1160604, and FN-50127-14) awarded to me as principal investigator (2009–2015) to carry out the fieldwork, data collection, documentary linguistic research, and corpus linguistics development work reported here.

(2) Some of the material in this chapter is drawn from material that first appeared in previous publications (Davis, 2010, 2011, 2014, 2015), although it has been considerably reworked and recast for this chapter.

(3) The sociolinguistic term variety is used throughout this paper to refer to different forms of a genetically related language. For example, British and American English are varieties of the same language, and Black ASL is considered a variety or dialect of ASL. The “Plains sign lingua franca” was a variety of standard PISL.

(4) “Two-Kettles Sioux” are a subgroup of the larger Lakȟóta Sioux Native American cultural group.

(5) The mere classification of a language according to its basic or preferred word order in no way means that the language exhibits only that one type of word order. Each language adheres to its basic word order to greater or lesser degree, and most grammatical patterns are interpreted as variations, modifications, or transformations of the so-called basic word order (Johnston and Schembri, 2007).

(6) Recursion, which makes it possible for human language to contain an infinite number of sentences is often cited as an important factor separating language from other forms of communication. Hauser, Chomsky, and Fitch (2002) claim it is the only factor defining the language faculty in a narrow sense, though linguists are not in full agreement about this.

(7) Sanderville, an elder, tribal leader, and interpreter for the Blackfoot nation, was a fluent PISL signer.