Before American Sign Language, we had “Hand Talk”

From Vox.

The hidden history of an ancient language.

Subscribe and turn on notifications 🔔 so you don’t miss any videos: http://goo.gl/0bsAjO

Centuries before we had American Sign Language, Native sign languages, broadly known as “Hand Talk,” were thriving across North America. Hand Talk would be influential in the formation of American Sign Language. But it has largely been written out of history.

One of these Hand Talk variations, Plains Indian Sign Language, was used so widely across the Great Plains that it became a lingua franca — a universal language used by both deaf and hearing people to communicate among tribes that didn’t share a common spoken language. At one point, tens of thousands of indigenous people used Plains Indian Sign Language, or PISL, for everything from trade to hunting, conflict, storytelling, and rituals.

But by the late 1800s, the federal government had implemented a policy that would change the course of indigenous history forever: a violent boarding school program designed to forcibly assimilate indigenous children into white American culture — a dark history that we’re still learning more about to this day.

Because of a forced “English-only” policy, the boarding school era is one of the main reasons we lost so many Native signers — along with the eventual dominance of ASL in schools for the deaf.

Today, there are just a handful of fluent PISL signers left in the US. In the piece above we hear from two of these signers who have dedicated their lives to studying and revitalizing the language. They show us PISL in action, and help us explore how this ancient language holds centuries of indigenous history.

Read more from Melanie McKay-Cody on the history of Plains Indian Sign Language: https://shareok.org/handle/11244/319767

Check out Lanny Real Bird’s videos: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCSFVFPZKp14gfMWhA1EzxlQ

Much of the footage of the 1930 Indian Sign Language Council isn’t online, but check out some of it here: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Indian_Sign_Language_Council_(1930).webm

Here are some original books we reference on sign talk: https://archive.org/details/indiansigntalkbe00hadl/page/66/mode/2up
https://archive.org/details/indiansignlangua00tomk/page/10/mode/2up

The Smithsonian holds lots of photos and archives on Plains Indian Sign Language like this: https://www.si.edu/object/archives/components/sova-naa-photolot-24-ref10318

Sarah Klotz on how Native American boarding schools like Carlisle contributed to the loss of PISL: http://constell8cr.com/issue-2/the-historical-work-of-cultural-rhetorics-constellating-indigenous-deaf-and-english-only-literacies/. She references archives that shows how students continued to use sign language like this one from the Carlisle Indian School Digital Resource Center: https://carlisleindian.dickinson.edu/publications/school-news-vol-2-no-8

Have an idea for a story that we should investigate for Missing Chapter? Send it to us via this form! http://bit.ly/2RhjxMy

Sign up for the Missing Chapter newsletter to stay up to date with the series: https://vox.com/missing-chapter

Explore the full Missing Chapter playlist, including episodes, a creator Q&A, and more! https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLJ8cMiYb3G5fR2kt0L4Nihvel4pEDw9od

Make sure you never miss behind the scenes content in the Vox Video newsletter, sign up here: http://vox.com/video-newsletter

Vox.com is a news website that helps you cut through the noise and understand what’s really driving the events in the headlines. Check out http://www.vox.com

Support Vox’s reporting with a one-time or recurring contribution: http://vox.com/contribute-now

Shop the Vox merch store: http://vox.com/store

Watch our full video catalog: http://goo.gl/IZONyE

Follow Vox on Facebook: http://facebook.com/vox
Follow Vox on Twitter: http://twitter.com/voxdotcom
Follow Vox on TikTok: http://tiktok.com/@voxdotcom