Native American circa 1900
Native American circa 1900

Also known as Plains Indian Sign Language (PISL), Plains Sign Talk was a lingua franca used among Native Americans over an area of more than a million square miles, from Canada down to the Gulf of Mexico. It was a vital tool for trade in order to overcome the 40 or more spoken languages that existed across the area, and it is now enshrined in storytelling, oratory and ceremonies as well as being a language for the deaf.

The language was already fully developed when it was discovered by Spanish explorers in the sixteenth century. Speakers of the language numbered 100,000 in the late nineteenth century but have dwindled drastically since then and now number only a few.

Plains Sign Talk is conveyed by the hands and there are 4 basic parameters to consider. These are:

  • The location of the hand relative to the body

  • The movement (or not) of the hand – its direction, whether it forms an arc, etc

  • The shape of the hand – where the fingers are, which is tucked in front of the other etc

  • The orientation of the hand, eg whether the palm is uppermost or facing down

The language is not associated, as far as anyone knows, with any spoken language. Its vocabulary and ideas are founded on the needs of tribes understanding each other – conveying information, emotions and nuances – but it has gone beyond that to a more general language and now includes, for example, a sign for playing cards.

Native American teepees
Native American teepees

Some of the signs are very straightforward – horns made with the index fingers on the head represent Buffalo and index fingers crossed in an inverted ‘V’ indicate a teepee. Others are more subtle and sometimes involve associations and shifts of meaning which make very good sense once understood.

For example, Tree is signed with fingers pointing upwards and a slight upward movement. Grass is the same but nearer the ground. Grow is like Grass but with a repeated thrusting movement upwards. Smoke involves the fingers being thrown upwards several times from the same place while Fire is basically the same only uses a wavering motion.

Amusingly, the sign for Theft is almost the same as that for Bear. The signs for Cold/Winter, Love, and Prisoner are also very similar!

Tribes were often rude in the signs they used for each other. Kiowa, the tribe which lived on the Blackland Prairie, was indicated by other tribes with the same sign as that for Fool. The Nez Percés shared the sign for Lie or Falsehood. Presumably it was generally known what the overriding characteristics were of each tribe, although an individual tribe might not be so keen to use such an uncomplimentary sign for themselves!

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