The Hidden History of “Hand Talk,” the Native American Sign Language That Predated ASL by Centuries

No one per­son can take cred­it for the inven­tion of Amer­i­can Sign Lan­guage. Its his­to­ry reach­es back to the ear­ly 19th cen­tu­ry, when forms of sign devel­oped among Deaf com­mu­ni­ties in New Eng­land. Ear­ly attempts at a signed form of Eng­lish that repli­cat­ed pho­net­ic sounds gave way to a pure sign lan­guage with no ref­er­ence to speech, com­bin­ing forms of sign used by Deaf com­mu­ni­ties in New Eng­land with LSF (Langue des Signes Française), a French sys­tem invent­ed in 1760. By 1835, ASL had become the stan­dard lan­guage of Deaf instruc­tion. 20 years lat­er over 40% of teach­ers were also them­selves deaf users of ASL.

The “ori­gins of the Amer­i­can Deaf-World” — as Har­lan Lane, Richard Pil­lard, and Mary French write in an arti­cle for Sign Lan­guage Stud­ies – has “major roots in a tri­an­gle of New Eng­land Deaf com­mu­ni­ties.” Here, the first school for the Deaf that used ASL was found­ed by Thomas Gal­laudet and Lau­rent Clerc; annu­al con­ven­tions brought togeth­er Deaf stu­dents and edu­ca­tors from all around the coun­try; peri­od­i­cals were found­ed; and, at one time, a Deaf com­mon­wealth was pro­posed and “debat­ed at length at the 1858 meet­ing of the New Eng­land Gal­laudet Asso­ci­a­tion.”

How­ev­er, as the Vox video explain­er points out, there’s anoth­er, far deep­er his­to­ry – notably the pre­vi­ous exis­tence of Indige­nous sign lan­guages all over North Amer­i­ca. One form of “Hand Talk” called Plains Indi­ans Sign Lan­guage (PISL) rep­re­sents “one of the old­est lan­guages in North Amer­i­ca.” It was not only a sys­tem of sign for the Deaf but also oper­at­ed as a lin­gua fran­ca among dif­fer­ent lan­guage groups. PISL “was the means for com­merce,” says PISL edu­ca­tor Lan­ny Real Bird. “It was the means for eco­nom­ics.… Plains Indi­an Sign Lan­guage was the medi­um for com­mu­ni­ca­tion of inter­trib­al nations.”

Melanie McK­ay-Cody, Pro­fes­sor at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Ari­zona and mem­ber of the Chero­kee Nation West, shows how many of the ges­tures of Hand Talk more gen­er­al­ly — or “North Amer­i­can Indi­an Sign Lan­guage” — can be found in ancient rock writ­ing. Hand Talk has region­al vari­a­tions all over the con­ti­nent, includ­ing a North­east Indi­an Sign Lan­guage cov­er­ing what is now New Eng­land, the upper Mid­west, and the Mid-Atlantic. Researchers like McK­ay-Cody believe that this vari­ant sig­nif­i­cant­ly influ­enced ASL through Native Amer­i­can chil­dren forced to attend the Amer­i­can School for the Deaf, which was then called the Amer­i­can Asy­lum for Dead Mutes.

The video presents com­pelling evi­dence for North Amer­i­can Indi­an Sign Lan­guage’s influ­ence on ASL, and on Amer­i­can cul­ture more gen­er­al­ly, includ­ing a 1930 film of the Indi­an Sign Lan­guage Grand Coun­cil, “one of the largest gath­er­ings of inter­trib­al Indige­nous lead­ers ever filmed.” Orga­nized by Gen­er­al Hugh L. Scott, the pur­pose of the coun­cil was to pre­serve PISL. Con­cerned that “young men are not learn­ing your sign lan­guage,” as he signed to the trib­al lead­ers, Scott wor­ried “it will dis­ap­pear from this coun­try.”

It so hap­pened that ASL itself might have dis­ap­peared in the 1870s and 80s when fierce oppo­nents of sign lan­guage — called “Oral­ists” and lead by Alexan­der Gra­ham Bell — attempt­ed to ban ASL and force Deaf stu­dents to com­mu­ni­cate with speech and lip-read­ing. Gra­ham’s moth­er was Deaf; his father invent­ed a sys­tem of sym­bols called “Vis­i­ble Speech” which Gra­ham him­self taught at a pri­vate school. Despite his efforts, ASL thrived.

As you’ll learn in the video, how­ev­er, Scott and the trib­al lead­ers he gath­ered had rea­son for con­cern all the way back in 1930. Few users of Indige­nous sign lan­guages remain after the gen­er­a­tion of stu­dents forced to assim­i­late “were told,” McK­ay-Cody says, “that ASL was supe­ri­or to what­ev­er their Native sign was.”

Relat­ed Con­tent:

How Inge­nious Sign Lan­guage Inter­preters Are Bring­ing Music to Life for the Deaf: Visu­al­iz­ing the Sound of Rhythm, Har­mo­ny & Melody

Native Lands: An Inter­ac­tive Map Reveals the Indige­nous Lands on Which Mod­ern Nations Were Built

Eve­lyn Glen­nie (a Musi­cian Who Hap­pens to Be Deaf) Shows How We Can Lis­ten to Music with Our Entire Bod­ies

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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