Plains Indian Sign Language

Plains Indian Sign Language (PISL), also known as Plains Sign Talk,[6] Plains Sign Language 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, central and western United States and northern Mexico, used among the various Plains Nations.[7] It was also used for story-telling, oratory, various ceremonies, and by deaf people for ordinary daily use.[8] It is falsely believed 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.

Plains Native American Sign Language
Plains Sign Talk
Hand Talk
First Nation Sign Language[1]
Langue des Signes Indienne des Plaines (in the Canadian province of Québec)
Lenguaje de Signos Indio de las Llanuras (in Mexico)
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
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
  The attested historical range of Plains Sign Talk among other sign languages in the US and Canada (excl. ASL and LSQ).

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


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.[9] These records include the accounts of Cabeza de Vaca in 1527 and Coronado in 1541.

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.[10] By the 1960s, there remained a "very small percentage of this number".[10] There are few Plains Sign Talk speakers today in the 21st century.[11]

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.


Sign language use has been documented across speakers of at least 37 spoken languages in twelve families,[12] spread across an area of over 2.6 million square kilometres (1 million square miles).[8][13] 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 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.

Navajo Sign Language
Native toUnited States
Native speakers
unknown (1992)[14]
(deaf and hearing members)
Plains Sign Talk
  • Navajo Sign Language
Language codes
ISO 639-3None (mis)
Blackfoot Sign Language
Langue des Signes Blackfoot
(in the Canadian province of Québec)
Native toCanada, United States
Native speakers
unknown (2015)[15]
(deaf and hearing members)
Plains Sign Talk
  • Blackfoot Sign Language
Language codes
ISO 639-3None (mis)
Cree Sign Language
Langue des Signes Crie
(in the Canadian province of Québec)
Native toCanada, United States
Native speakers
unknown (2015)
(deaf and hearing members)
Plains Sign Talk
  • Cree Sign Language
Language codes
ISO 639-3None (mis)
Ojibwa Sign Language
Langue des Signes Ojibwa
(in the Canadian province of Quebec)
Native toCanada, United States
Native speakers
unknown (2015)
(deaf and hearing members)
Plains Sign Talk
  • Ojibwa Sign Language
Language codes
ISO 639-3None (mis)

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

A distinct form is also reported from the Wyandot of Ohio.

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.[14][16]

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.[15]


There are four basic parameters of Plains Sign Talk: the location of the hand, its movement, shape, and orientation:[17]

  • Location—this involves the spatial placement of a sign.[18] Signs may change meaning when placed in a different location, for example, in front of the face as opposed to in front of the torso.[19]
  • Movement—this involves, as implied, the way the hands move when forming the sign.[18] For example, in Plains Sign Talk, the signs AFTERNOON and MID-DAY form minimal pairs as they are both formed exactly the same, the only difference being that MID-DAY is stationary and AFTERNOON moves from above the head to the side in an arching motion.[13][20]
  • Handshape—as implied, each sign takes on a certain shape in the hand, called a handshape. The handshapes of signs are a very key parameter. For example, the signs YES and I-KNOW are the same in all parameters except for the handshape; in YES the hand makes the Plains Sign Talk J shape, and in I-KNOW the hand takes the L shape.[13]
  • Orientation—this refers to the orientation of the palm.[18] This is clearly seen in the Plains Sign Talk words ABOVE and ADD. Both involve having the left hand act as a base from which the right hand rises, and both have the same location, movement, and handshapes; however, in ABOVE, the non-dominant hand is palm down, and in ADD the non-dominant hand is palm up.[20]

There may be other parameters, such as facial features. However, these function like suprasegmentals, and the four parameters listed above are the crucial ones.[18]

Although the parameters of sign are listed separately below, in actuality they co-occur with the other parameters to make a single sign.[18] It is not clear how many of the differences were distinctive (phonemic).


The Bureau of American Ethnology published a glossary of Plains Sign Talk words that illustrates the handshapes involved.[21] They assigned them alphabetic letters.

  • Fist, thumb in front of fingers (A or B)
  • Fist, thumb at side of fingers (C)
  • Fingers clenched, thumb touching middle of index finger (D)
  • Fingers hooked, thumb touching back tip of index finger (E)
  • Fingers hooked, thumb at side of fingers (F)
  • Fingers hooked, thumb touching tips of fingers (G)
  • Fingers slightly bent, thumb at side tip of index finger (H)
  • Fist, except index finger forming hook with thumb holding tip of index finger (I)
  • Fist, except index finger fully extended (J, K, or M)
  • Fist, except index finger and thumb extended, thumb bends at last joint to form 90 degree angle with index finger (L)
  • Fist except index and middle fingers fully extended (N)
  • Thumb, index, and middle finger pointing upward and separated, ring finger and pinky curved horizontally (O)
  • All fingers and thumb pointing upward and separated, palm cupped (P and Q)
  • All fingers and thumb fully extended and separated (R)
  • All fingers and thumb fully extended and held together (S and T)
  • Fingers gathered to a point, palm cupped, with thumb in the middle (U)
  • Fingers slightly bent, thumb at side of index finger (V)
  • All fingers and thumb extended, relaxed (Y)


Plains Sign Talk uses the following locations. The various neutral spaces are the most common places for signs to occur.[19]

  • Left side of torso
  • Right side of torso
  • Neutral space (centered in front of torso)
  • Upper neutral space
  • Lower neutral space
  • Left neutral space
  • Right neutral space
  • Mouth
  • Nose
  • Chin front
  • Below chin
  • Cheek
  • Eye
  • Below nose (above mouth)
  • Forehead
  • Head top (attached to top of head)
  • Head side (attached to head above ear)
  • Head back (attached to back of head)
  • Side of head right (space to the right side of head)
  • Side of head left (space to the left side of head)
  • Side of head front right (space in front of head on the right)
  • Side of head front left (space in front of head on the left)
  • Above head
  • Ear (attached to head at ear)
  • Beside ear (space beside ear)
  • Wrist
  • Palm front
  • Palm back
  • Left side of hand
  • Right side of hand
  • Below hand
  • Above hand
  • Fingers
  • Before face (space in front of face)
  • Chest
  • Chest right
  • Chest left
  • Elbow
  • Forearm
  • Shoulder
  • Feet


These are the directions towards which the palm can face.[19]

  • Up
  • Down
  • Non-dominant side
  • Dominant side
  • Toward signer
  • Away from signer


The movements below are found in Plains Sign Talk. They may be repeated in certain situations.[19]

  • 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


As most Native American languages lacked an indigenous alphabetic tradition, and 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.[22] 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 only known indigenous written transcriptions of the Kiowa language.

See also


  1. 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. Hammarström, Harald; Forkel, Robert; Haspelmath, Martin, eds. (2017). "Plains Indian Sign Language". Glottolog 3.0. Jena, Germany: Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History.
  6. Darin Flynn. "Canadian Languages". University of Calgary. Retrieved August 8, 2015.
  7. "Native American Hand Talkers Fight to Keep Sign Language Alive". Retrieved 2019-03-19.
  8. 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
  9. 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.
  10. 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)
  11. "Plains Indian Sign Language".
  12. 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
  13. Davis, Jeffrey E. (2010), Hand talk: Sign language among American Indian nations, Cambridge UK: Cambridge University Press, ISBN 978-0-521-69030-0
  14. Supalla, Samuel J. (1992). The Book of Name Signs. p. 22.
  15. "Language". Blackfoot Crossing Historical Park. Retrieved October 5, 2015.
  16. 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.
  17. Bergmann et al,2007, pp. 79-86
  18. Bergmann et al,2007
  19. Cody, 1970
  20. Tomkins,1969
  21. Bureau of American ethnology,1881
  22. "Who put Native American sign language in the US mail? - OUPblog". 9 May 2018.
  • Bergmann, Anouschka; Kathleen Currie Hall; Sharon Miriam Ross. "Language Files". USA. Ohio State University, 2007.
  • Bureau of American ethnology. "Annual report of the Bureau of American ethnology to the Secretary of the Smithsonian institution". Washington, DC. Government printing office, 1881.
  • Cody, Iron Eyes. "Indian Talk". CA. Naturegraph Publishers, Inc, 1970.
  • Davis, Jeffrey E. "Hand Talk". USA. Cambridge University Press, 2010.
  • Tomkins, William. "Indian Sign Language". Toronto, Ontario. Dover Publications, Inc, 1969

Further reading

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