The Signed Lingua Franca That Once Spanned North America


There were once hundreds of indigenous languages, belonging to dozens of widely different language families, spoken across North America. Still, tribes were able to communicate with each other through a well-developed gesture system. That system was observed in action by Europeans as early as 1540, when the Spanish explorer Francisco Vasquez de Coronado wrote of the Tonkawa people he encountered in what is now Texas. He observed that “although they conversed by means of signs, they made themselves understood so well that there was no need of an interpreter.” By the 1920s, the system, now known by scholars as Plains Indian Sign Language (PISL), was nearly extinct.

Concerned about preserving it in some form for posterity, Hugh L. Scott—a retired major general of the U.S. Army who had served much of his military career in the West—lobbied Congress to support the making of a film and dictionary of the language. In 1930, documentation under an Act of Congress began with the filming of the Indian Sign Language Council, where 18 participants, from a range of tribes and language groups, came together in Browning, Montana, on the site where the Museum of the Plains Indian now stands.

The Great Depression soon interfered with the progress of the project, and though Scott tried to continue it under his own funding, he died in 1934. The film languished in the National Archives until the beginning of the 21st century, when University of Tennessee professor Jeffrey E. Davis began digitizing and analyzing the original 8mm films, with the help of grants from the University of Tennessee, the National Science Foundation, and the National Endowment for the Humanities. His book Hand Talk: Sign Language Among Indian Nations was published in 2010.

In the above video, narrated by Scott, you can see the participants of the Sign Language Council talking in sign about a variety of things, including how much they enjoy coming together for this gathering. But the dark cloud hanging over the proceedings is that the language is already on the way out. As Scott notes, “young men are not learning your sign language, and soon it will disappear from this country. It is for us to make a record of it for those who come after us before it becomes lost forever.”

More information about PISL, including films, drawings, and a basic dictionary, can be found at the Hand Talk site.