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Sign Language - Indian Sign Language

Who Were the First American Signers?

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Updated April 28, 2009

Who were the first people to sign in America? It may have been the native American Indians. Early explorers that discovered America came across native Americans communicating easily and freely in sign language.

Why did the native Americans develop a sign language? Indian Sign Language, also known as Plains Sign Language, was developed by Indian society to meet a need for clear communication between tribes that spoke different languages. It had nothing whatsoever to do with hearing loss. It was used only by Indians in the Plains.

As with any native language, Indian Sign Language was in danger of dying out and being lost. In 1930, the U.S. government sponsored a conference on Indian Sign Language that included the production of a film, "The Indian Sign Language." This film is reportedly stored at the National Archives.

To my surprise, I discovered that books and online sign language dictionaries for Indian sign language are available for those who are curious about this unique sign language.

Online Dictionaries

The Native American "Indian" Sign Language Dictionary offers written and graphical descriptions of signs. The site also includes interesting features such as how to tell your name in Indian sign language,

Historical Films

I searched the website of the National Archives trying to find the record of that conference from 1930 and was unable to find it so I can not confirm that it is still available in Federal records. However, I did find the film "The Lord's Prayer in Indian Sign Language," File Designator/ID No./Format: MFF MPR# 450 MPPCAK, available under Nixon Presidential Materials. Another historical film that is in the records of the Smithsonian Institution, is a 13-reel motion picture of the "development of an intertribal sign language dictionary of the American Indians of the Great Plains, and the theory, history, and practice of the sign language, ca. 1930-31," listed under record group 106.4.

Currently Available Books

Many books on Indian Sign Language are available. Some of these books focus on demonstrating the signs, while others include detailed histories of Indian sign language.
  • A children's book, Indian Sign Language, by William Tomkins. ISBN 048622029X .
  • Another children's book, Native American Sign Language, by Olsen. ISBN 0816745099.
  • Indian Talk: Hand Signals of the North American Indians, by Cody Iron Eyes. ISBN 0911010823.
  • Indian Sign Language, by W.P. Clark. ISBN 0803263090.
  • Sign Talk of the Cheyenne Indians, by Ernest Thompson Seton. ISBN 0486414345.
  • Sign Language Among North American Indians, by Garrick Mallery. ISBN 0486419487.

Videos of Indian Sign Language

Clark and Sons Mercantile in Houston, Texas offers the video Indian Sign Language with Larry Pendleton (CSV-101). This is an instructional video with at least 120 Indian signs. The vendor also offers Indian Sign Language flash cards.

Other Indian Sign Language videos available include:

  • Wiyuta : Assiniboine Storytelling with Signs A CD-Rom, a cd-rom that has video clips. ISBN 029272487X.
Additional resources can be found in the International Bibliography of Sign Language, searching on the term "Plains Indian Sign Language."
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