Plains Indian Sign Language (PISL) historically served various social and discourse functions within and between numerous American Indian communities of the Great Plains and cultural groups bordering this geographic area. Classified in the Sign Language family, PISL (also called sign talk) is distinct from American Sign Language (ASL) that is used in Deaf communities of the US and Canada. The use of PISL has dramatically declined from its widespread use as a lingua franca in previous times, due in part to its replacement by English, and ASL in some cases. Although PISL is an endangered language, and the extant number of varieties and users is unknown, it has not vanished; it is still used within some native groups in traditional storytelling, rituals, and conversational narratives by both deaf and hearing American Indians (e.g., Blackfeet, Crow, Mandan-Hidatsa, Nakota/Gros Ventre, and Northern Cheyenne, among others). There is an urgent need to document and provide linguistic descriptions of contemporary PISL varieties, and for sign language linguists to collaborate with deaf and hearing members of American Indian signing communities.

With support of the National Science Foundation, sign language linguists Dr. Jeffrey Davis (University of Tennessee) and Melanie McKay-Cody (Chickamauga Cherokee/Choctaw; William Woods University, Fulton, MO) will collect contemporary sign language narratives of American Indians who know and use the PISL variety. The research team will provide comparative linguistic analyses, and integrate these new findings into the digital archive of American Indian sign language documentary materials previously collected in collaboration with the Smithsonian's National Anthropological Archives (with support of a 2006-2007 DEL NSF/NEH fellowship awarded to Davis). The one-year fieldwork and digital project will document the current sociolinguistic status of PISL; illuminate its linguistic nature and structure; produce an inventory of previously unknown materials; provide annotations and captions of various documentary materials and films; contribute to the revitalization of PISL in native communities where it once thrived; and make accessible to broader audiences this important yet often overlooked part of American Indian linguistic and cultural heritage.

Project Report

With 2009 – 2011 support from the NSF’s Documenting Endangered Languages (DEL) Program, Linguistics Division, we have conducted the first fieldwork in over 50 years to focus on the linguistic status of Plains Indian Sign Language (PISL), classified as a highly endangered language variety. The project has conducted documentary linguistic fieldwork using videography, photography, and annotations to develop a digital archive and corpus of the linguistic and cultural information; and we have researched the linguistic underpinnings of PISL. This research addresses an urgent need to document and provide comparative linguistic descriptions of PISL grammar and vocabulary; and for sign language linguists to collaborate with Native signers from American Indian communities. Thus far, the project has identified and filmed more than 25 PISL signers, including women and deaf tribal members from among N. Cheyenne [Tse'tsehestahese], Blackfeet [Amskapi Pikuni], Assiniboine [A'aniinen], Crow [Apsaalooke], Nakoda, and Lakhóta [Tetonwan] nations. The documentary linguistic findings are being transformed into short video clips and image collages for the public; and longer video samples for PISL native community stakeholders, linguists, anthropologists, and other researchers. The project’s findings are being published in scholarly articles and integrated into a digital corpus and research website maintained by the PI at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. The digital corpus includes American Indian Sign Language documentary materials collected during the project's 2009 - 2011 fieldwork and archival material previously collected in collaboration with the Smithsonian Institution's National Anthropological Archives and Human Film Studies Archives, National Museum of Natural History. Research website: The historical linguistic evidence and current linguistic research suggests that PISL most likely emerged in order to facilitate communication between members of different tribes speaking distinct languages. It has been well documented that during the nineteenth and early part of the twentieth century a highly conventionalized and linguistically enriched sign language emerged and was used in varying degrees across the major cultural areas of native North America. Traditionally, indigenous signed language served various social and discourse functions within and between numerous American Indian communities of the Great Plains and other cultural groups bordering this area. PISL has been the best documented and most extensively described; it encompasses several dialects still used today among members of Plains Indian cultural groups (e.g., Algonquian and Siouan linguistic families) named in the paragraph above. PISL transmission has dramatically declined from its widespread use in previous times, due to various historical and social factors, but in part due to its replacement by English and American Sign Language (ASL) in some instances. Because of this replacement, there is an urgency to document, preserve, and revitalize PISL and other indigenous languages. PISL is now primarily known by hearing elders and by American Indians who are deaf. Although PISL is currently considered an endangered language, our project is documenting it still being used by dozens of American Indians and potentially hundreds based on our fieldwork and reports from PISL community members. Documentary linguistic work is critical to advance our knowledge of the cognitive, cultural, and linguistic underpinnings of indigenous and village signed language varieties. Towards this, we collaborate with Native signers to document the current sociolinguistic status of PISL, to describe its linguistic nature and structure, and to conduct comparative linguistic analyses to determine varieties and dialects. Thus, we are gaining valuable insights about PISL-ASL contact, signed language-spoken language contact, and the conveyance of human language in both signed and spoken modalities, and the linguistic underpinnings of signed and spoken languages. The project offers evidence for a history of native/first language acquisition, that PISL was acquired natively, and signed fluently by both deaf and hearing Indians in certain tribes and nations. We would not be finding PISL used in this number of domains, and adhering to linguistic rules, had it not been acquired and transmitted natively. Although some of the most fluent signers were deaf or had deaf family members, many other hearing community members also acquired PISL or its antecedents to fulfill a range of discourse functions and purposes from in-group narratives to international communication Since 2009, the project has involved members of Native communities and undergraduate/graduate linguistic students in fieldwork and production of documentary materials that are both accessible and analyzable to audiences unfamiliar with the language. The project has produced an inventory of over 1,000 PISL signs and conducted comparative linguistic analyses. These findings—ranging from lexical and grammatical descriptions to discourse functions and patterns of acquisition—are being published and integrated into the project’s website/online digital archive maintained at the University of Tennessee, which we maintain is the largest corpus of its kind. This ensures that this important yet often overlooked part of American Indian linguistic and cultural heritage is made accessible to broader audiences, and to students and scholars interested in studying these types and varieties of signed language—specifically, indigenous and village signed languages

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University of Tennessee Knoxville
United States
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