Plains Native American Sign Language
Hand Talk
Plains Sign Talk
First Nation Sign Language[1]
Langues[dubious ] des signes des Indiens des Plaines (in the Canadian province of Québec)
Lenguaje de signos Indio de las Llanuras (in Mexico)
Sun Sign.jpg
Native toCanada, Mexico, USA
RegionCentral Canada and United States including the Great Plains and the Rocky Mountains region; northern Mexico
EthnicityVarious North American Indigenous Peoples
Native speakers
Unknown (no date)[2]
75 users total (no date)[3]
Isolate, formerly a trade pidgin
  • Navajo Sign Language
  • Blackfoot Sign Language
  • Cree Sign Language
  • Ojibwa Sign Language
none; formerly a now unnamed, undeciphered script
Official status
Official language in
Recognised minority
language in
Recognised as official in courts, education and legislative assembly of Ontario.[1]
Language codes
ISO 639-3psd
ELPPlains Indian Sign Language
US & Canada sign-language map (excl. ASL and LSQ).png
  The attested historical range of Plains Sign Talk among other sign languages in the US and Canada (excl. ASL and LSQ).
Extracts of the films taken during the 1930 Conference on PISL conservation, showing General Hugh L. Scott and signers from various tribes.[4]
A 1900 newspaper illustration claiming to showcase several of the signs of Plains Indian Sign Language.
A 1900 newspaper illustration claiming to showcase several of the signs of Plains Indian Sign Language.

Plains Indian Sign Language (PISL), also known as Hand Talk, Plains Sign Talk,[5] and First Nation Sign Language,[1] is a trade language, formerly trade pidgin, that was once the lingua franca across what is now central Canada, the central and western United States and northern Mexico, used among the various Plains Nations.[6] It was also used for story-telling, oratory, various ceremonies, and by deaf people for ordinary daily use.[7] It is thought by some to be a manually coded language or languages; however, there is not substantive evidence establishing a connection between any spoken language and Plains Sign Talk.

The name 'Plains Sign Talk' is preferred in Canada, with 'Indian' being considered pejorative by many who are Indigenous. Hence, publications and reports on the language vary in naming conventions according to origin.

As a result of several factors, including the massive depopulation and the Americanization of Indigenous North Americans, the number of Plains Sign Talk speakers declined from European arrival onward. In 1885, it was estimated that there were over 110,000 "sign-talking Indians", including Blackfoot, Cheyenne, Sioux, Kiowa and Arapaho.[8] By the 1960s, there remained a "very small percentage of this number".[8] There are few Plains Sign Talk speakers in the 21st century.[9]


Sign language use has been documented across speakers of at least 37 spoken languages in twelve families,[10] spread across an area of over 2.6 million square kilometres (1 million square miles).[7][11] In recent history, it was highly developed among the Crow, Cheyenne, Arapaho and Kiowa, among others, and remains strong among the Crow, Cheyenne and Arapaho.

Signing may have started in the south, perhaps in northern Mexico or Texas, and only spread into the plains in recent times, though this suspicion may be an artifact of European observation. Plains Sign Talk spread to the Sauk, Fox, Potawatomi, Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, and Caddo after their removal to Oklahoma. Via the Crow, it replaced the divergent Plateau Sign Language[citation needed] among the eastern nations that used it, the Coeur d'Alene, Sanpoil, Okanagan, Thompson, Lakes, Shuswap, and Coleville in British Columbia, with western nations shifting instead to Chinook Jargon.

The various nations with attested use, divided by language family, are:

A distinct form is also reported from the Wyandot of Ohio.[citation needed]

It is known that Navajo has a comparably sizeable population of individuals who can speak the Navajo dialect of Plains Sign Talk. There is also an unrelated sign language, Navajo Family Sign, in a clan of Navajos that has several deaf members.[12][13]

There exists a variety of Plains Sign Talk within the Blackfoot Confederacy. Little is known about the language beyond that it is used by Deaf community members, as well as by the community at large, to pass on "oral" traditions and stories.[14]


There are four basic parameters of Plains Sign Talk: the location of the hand, its movement, shape, and orientation:[15]

There may be other parameters, such as facial features. However, these function like suprasegmentals, and the four parameters listed above are the crucial ones.[16]

Although the parameters of sign are listed separately below, in actuality they co-occur with the other parameters to make a single sign.[16] It is not clear how many of the differences were distinctive (phonemic).


In 1880, Colonel Garrick Mallery published a glossary that illustrates the handshapes involved in the first Annual report of the Bureau of Ethnology. He assigned alphabetic letters to the handshapes, "for reference [...] to avoid tedious description, should any of them exactly correspond," as part of a suggested system of describing and cataloguing signs.[19]

Engraving representing handshapes used in Plains Indian Sign Language
Engraving representing handshapes used in Plains Indian Sign Language
Mallery's original handshape glossary[19]


Plains Sign Talk uses the following locations. The various neutral spaces are the most common places for signs to occur.[17]


These are the directions towards which the palm can face.[17]


The movements below are found in Plains Sign Talk. They may be repeated in certain situations.[17]

  • Stationary (no movement)
  • Downward
  • Upward
  • Forward
  • Backward
  • Toward dominant side
  • toward non-dominant side
  • Upward arch
  • Downward arch
  • Backward arch
  • Forward arch
  • Toward dominant side arch
  • Toward non-dominant side arch
  • Diagonal up and right
  • Diagonal up and left
  • Diagonal down and right
  • Diagonal down and left
  • Rotating
  • Vertical circle
  • Horizontal circle


Plains Sign Talk's antecedents, if any, are unknown, due to lack of written records. But, the earliest records of contact between Europeans and Indigenous peoples of the Gulf Coast region in what is now Texas and northern Mexico note a fully formed sign language already in use by the time of the Europeans' arrival there.[20] These records include the accounts of Cabeza de Vaca in 1527 and Coronado in 1541.

William Philo Clark, who served in the United States Army on the northern plains during the Indian Wars, was the author of The Indian Sign Language, first published in 1885. The Indian Sign Language with Brief Explanatory Notes of the Gestures Taught Deaf-Mutes in Our Institutions and a Description of Some of the Peculiar Laws, Customs, Myths, Superstitions, Ways of Living, Codes of Peace and War Signs is a comprehensive lexicon of signs, with accompanying insights into indigenous cultures and histories. It remains in print.


As Plains Indian Sign Language was widely understood among different tribes, a written, graphic transcription of these signs is known to have functioned as a medium of communication between Native Americans on and off reservations during the period of American colonization, removal, and forced schooling in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.[21] The letter of a Kiowa student, Belo Cozad, in 1890 sent to Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania from his parents on a reservation in Oklahoma made use of such signs and becomes one of the few known indigenous written transcriptions of the Kiowa language.[21]

See also


  1. ^ a b c Province of Ontario (2007). "Bill 213: An Act to recognize sign language as an official language in Ontario".
  2. ^ Plains Native American Sign Language at Ethnologue (17th ed., 2013)
  3. ^ Plains Indian Sign Language at Ethnologue (19th ed., 2016)
  4. ^ "Indian Sign Language Council of 1930" – via
  5. ^ Darin Flynn. "Canadian Languages". University of Calgary. Retrieved August 8, 2015.
  6. ^ "Native American Hand Talkers Fight to Keep Sign Language Alive". Retrieved 2019-03-19.
  7. ^ a b McKay-Cody, Melanie Raylene (1998), "Plains Indian Sign Language: A comparative study of alternative and primary signers", in Carroll, Cathryn (ed.), Deaf Studies V: Toward 2000--Unity and Diversity, Washington DC: Gallaudet University Press, ISBN 1893891097
  8. ^ a b Tomkins, William. Indian sign language. [Republication of "Universal Indian Sign Language of the Plains Indians of North America" 5th ed. 1931]. New York : Dover Publications 1969. (p. 7)
  9. ^ "Plains Indian Sign Language".
  10. ^ Davis, Jeffrey. 2006. "A historical linguistic account of sign language among North American Indian groups." In Multilingualism and Sign Languages: From the Great Plains to Australia; Sociolinguistics of the Deaf community, C. Lucas (ed.), Vol. 12, pp. 3–35. Washington, DC: Gallaudet University Press
  11. ^ a b c Davis, Jeffrey E. (2010), Hand talk: Sign language among American Indian nations, Cambridge UK: Cambridge University Press, ISBN 978-0-521-69030-0
  12. ^ Supalla, Samuel J. (1992). The Book of Name Signs. p. 22.
  13. ^ Davis, Jeffrey; Supalla, Samuel (1995). "A Sociolinguistic Description of Sign Language Use in a Navajo Family". In Ceil, Lucas (ed.). Sociolinguistics in Deaf Communities. Gallaudet University Press. pp. 77–106. ISBN 978-1-563-68036-6.
  14. ^ "Language". Blackfoot Crossing Historical Park. Retrieved October 5, 2015.
  15. ^ Bergmann et al,2007, pp. 79-86
  16. ^ a b c d e Bergmann et al,2007
  17. ^ a b c d Cody, 1970
  18. ^ a b Tomkins,1969
  19. ^ a b Mallery, Garrick (1881). "Sign Language Among North American Indians". Annual Report of the Bureau of Ethnology to the Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution. 1: 544–549.
  20. ^ Wurtzburg, Susan, and Campbell, Lyle. "North American Indian Sign Language: Evidence for its Existence before European Contact," International Journal of American Linguistics, Vol. 61, No. 2 (Apr., 1995), pp. 153-167.
  21. ^ a b "Who put Native American sign language in the US mail? - OUPblog". 9 May 2018.

Further reading