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.

On This Day in 1953, Jonas Salk Announced His Polio Vaccine

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Getty Images

On March 26, 1953, Dr. Jonas Salk went on CBS radio to announce his vaccine for poliomyelitis. He had worked for three years to develop the polio vaccine, attacking a disease that killed 3000 Americans in 1952 alone, along with 58,000 newly reported cases. Polio was a scourge, and had been infecting humans around the world for millennia. Salk's vaccine was the first practical way to fight it, and it worked—polio was officially eliminated in the U.S. in 1979.

Salk's method was to kill various strains of the polio virus, then inject them into a patient. The patient's own immune system would then develop antibodies to the dead virus, preventing future infection by live viruses. Salk's first test subjects were patients who had already had polio ... and then himself and his family. His research was funded by grants, which prompted him to give away the vaccine after it was fully tested.

Clinical trials of Salk's vaccine began in 1954. By 1955 the trials proved it was both safe and effective, and mass vaccinations of American schoolchildren followed. The result was an immediate reduction in new cases. Salk became a celebrity because his vaccine saved so many lives so quickly.

Salk's vaccine required a shot. In 1962, Dr. Albert Sabin unveiled an oral vaccine using attenuated (weakened but not killed) polio virus. Sabin's vaccine was hard to test in America in the late 1950s, because so many people had been inoculated using the Salk vaccine. (Sabin did much of his testing in the Soviet Union.) Oral polio vaccine, whether with attenuated or dead virus, is still the preferred method of vaccination today. Polio isn't entirely eradicated around the world, though we're very close.

Here's a vintage newsreel from the mid 1950s telling the story:

For more information on Dr. Jonas Salk and his work, click here.

Drunken Thieves Tried Stealing Stones From Notre-Dame

Athanasio Gioumpasis, Getty Images

With Paris, France, joining a long list of locales shutting down due to coronavirus, two thieves decided the time was right to attempt a clumsy heist—stealing stones from the Notre-Dame cathedral.

The crime occurred last Tuesday, March 17, and appeared from the start to be ill-conceived. The two intruders entered the cathedral and were immediately spotted by guards, who phoned police. When authorities found them, the trespassers were apparently drunk and attempting to hide under a tarpaulin with a collection of stones they had taken from the premises. Both men were arrested.

It’s believed the offenders intended to sell the material for a profit. Stones from the property sometimes come up for sale on the black market, though most are fake.

The crime comes as Paris is not only dealing with the coronavirus pandemic but a massive effort to restore Notre-Dame after the cathedral was ravaged by a fire in 2019. That work has come to a halt in the wake of the health crisis, though would-be looters should take note that guards still patrol the property.

[h/t The Art Newspaper]