The Bilingual U.S. – Great Plains Sign Language

The Louisiana Purchase of 1803 opened up the lands west of the Mississippi to colonization, and in the century that followed the great expanse of prairie lands which stretched from the mighty river to the Rocky Mountains witnessed a heavy immigration unlike any other in human history for its rapidity. American settlers from the Eastern States and Europeans directly from the Old Continent flooded in to the fertile territory, bringing with them a wide range of cultures and languages; in the 19th century the West was home to communities of English, French, Spanish, German, Cherokee, Czech, Dutch, Swedish and Norwegian speakers.

However the linguistic diversity imported to the Great Plains in the 1800s pales in comparison to the variety of languages which already were spoken there. The Plains Indians who had occupied this territory for centuries were anything but a homogenous group of people. After extensive research in the 1870s, Smithsonian Institute ethnologist Garrick Mallery concluded that more than 500 languages belonging to about 70 different families were spoken by Indians across the continent. And yet each of these languages was kept alive by a relatively small body of speakers; Mallery hypothesized that “in no other part of the thoroughly explored world has there been spread over so vast a space so small a number of individuals divided by so many linguistic and dialectic boundaries as in North America. Many wholly distinct tongues have for a long indefinite time been confined to a few scores of speakers, verbally incomprehensible to all others on the face of the earth who did not, from some rarely operating motive, laboriously acquire their language.”

In order to communicate among one another, the Indians employed a highly developed gestural language known as Plains Indian Sign Language (PISL). In his report, Mallery explains that expressive gesturing is a natural result of communication difficulties. He compares the undemonstrative inhabitants of linguistically homogenous and insular England to gesticulant Italians, constantly under foreign domination and, at the time, speaking a variety of dialects rather than a uniform language. In fact it seems that on one occasion King Ferdinand of the Two Sicilies, unable to make his voice heard over a boisterous crowd in Naples, managed to give an entire address with gestures.

The dialects of Italy may have made communication difficult, but they all belong to the same family. Plains Indians on the other hand spoke languages which often bore no relationship at all to one another; as a result their gestures developed into a highly-sophisticated sign language. While according to Mallery no single, identical sign language existed for all tribes, they were close enough to be understood. The ethnologist recommended that PISL be learned by “travelers and officials so as to give them much independence of professional interpreters- a class dangerously deceitful and tricky.”

Most of this category did not follow Mallery’s advice; in fact European contact spelled devastation for a great number of Indian languages. PISL, however, did not disappear right away; a study of elderly Plains Indians in the 1950’s found that 87% were still fluent in signing. Moreover, it seems that proficiency in both the spoken and signed languages was a factor in the survival of many Indian languages: “PISL appears not to have diminished the spoken languages with which it existed for so many years. It is worth noting that the forty or so language groups and one dozen families where sign language was documented have remained among the most linguistically robust. In stark contrast, numerous other American Indian spoken languages have become extinct.”

It is important to remember that, apart from Cherokee, Indian languages were not written in the 19th century. If we substitute the ability to read and write for the ability to sign, the history of North American Indian Languages provide us with an important analogy for what it takes to successfully maintain bilingualism. In conclusion, Mallery offers us an insightful reflection on the relationship between the linguistic capabilities of a population and the skill of its teachers: “The skill (in signing) of any tribe and the copiousness of its signs are proportioned to the accidental ability of the few individuals in it who act as custodians and teachers.”

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