Before American Sign Language, we had "Hand Talk"

The hidden history of an ancient language.

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Centuries before we had American Sign Language, Native sign languages, broadly known as “Hand Talk,” were thriving across North America. Hand Talk would be influential in the formation of American Sign Language. But it has largely been written out of history.

One of these Hand Talk variations, Plains Indian Sign Language, was used so widely across the Great Plains that it became a lingua franca — a universal language used by both deaf and hearing people to communicate among tribes that didn’t share a common spoken language. At one point, tens of thousands of indigenous people used Plains Indian Sign Language, or PISL, for everything from trade to hunting, conflict, storytelling, and rituals.

But by the late 1800s, the federal government had implemented a policy that would change the course of indigenous history forever: a violent boarding school program designed to forcibly assimilate indigenous children into white American culture — a dark history that we’re still learning more about to this day.

Because of a forced “English-only” policy, the boarding school era is one of the main reasons we lost so many Native signers — along with the eventual dominance of ASL in schools for the deaf.

Today, there are just a handful of fluent PISL signers left in the US. In the piece above we hear from two of these signers who have dedicated their lives to studying and revitalizing the language. They show us PISL in action, and help us explore how this ancient language holds centuries of indigenous history.

Read more from Melanie McKay-Cody on the history of Plains Indian Sign Language:

Check out Lanny Real Bird’s videos:

Much of the footage of the 1930 Indian Sign Language Council isn’t online, but check out some of it here:

Here are some original books we reference on sign talk:

The Smithsonian holds lots of photos and archives on Plains Indian Sign Language like this:

Sarah Klotz on how Native American boarding schools like Carlisle contributed to the loss of PISL: She references archives that shows how students continued to use sign language like this one from the Carlisle Indian School Digital Resource Center:

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