Native American Hand Talkers Fight to Keep Sign Language Alive

In early September 1930, the Blackfeet Nation of Montana hosted a historic Indian Sign Language Grand Council, gathering leaders of a dozen North American Nations and language groups.

The three-day council held was organized by Hugh L. Scott, a 77-year-old U.S. Army General who had spent a good portion of his career in the American West, where he observed and learned what users called Hand Talk, and what is today more broadly known as Plains Indian Sign Language (PISL). With $5,000 in federal funding, Scott filmed the proceedings and hoped to produce a film dictionary of more than 1,300 signs. He died before he could finish the project.

Scott’s films disappeared into the National Archives. Recently rediscovered, they are an important resource for those looking to revitalize PISL.

Among them is Ron Garritson, who identifies himself as being of Cree, Cherokee and European heritage. He was raised in Billings, Montana, near the Crow Nation.

“I learned how to speak Crow to a degree, and I was really interested in the sign language,” he said. “I saw it being used by the Elders, and I thought it was a beautiful form of communication. And so I started asking questions.”

Garritson studied Scott’s films, along with works by other ethnographers and now has a vocabulary of about 1,700 signs. He conducts workshops and classes across Montana, in an effort to preserve and spread sign language and native history.

Read more: Alaska Native News

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