North American Plains Indian Sign Language: A gathering of the Tribes

By Paul Barnett, Communication Specialist

The North American Plains Indian people as a means to communicate with each other used Plains Indian Sign language (PISL) for generations. It was a visual language that would be used whenever members of different tribes, each with their own unique spoken language would happen to encounter each other. It was a common language that bound the first nation peoples together.

According to the article, A Historical Linguistic Account of Sign Language among North American Indians, written by Jeffery E. Davis, the signed systems used by hearing Indians as an alternative to spoken language became a primary signed language when acquired by tribal members who are deaf. There are some similarities to American Sign Language found within the parameters of PISL: the location of the hand, its movement, shape, and orientation. There may be other shared markers, such as in the use of facial features.

The number of PISL users has dramatically declined since the nineteenth century but is still practiced, particularly on intertribal ceremonial occasions. It is also used in storytelling.

You can view a video of Ron Garrison, who signs the Crow dialect of PISL here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xgHu6xGknSI

In 1930 a film was taken during the Conference on PISL conservation, showing signers during a gathering of the tribes. You can view a short video clip of the conference here:

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