North American Plains Sign Language, older than European and Ottoman Sign Languages

We often see in Westerns how Indians manage to communicate with each other or with the white man through a series of hand gestures, sometimes accompanied by a phonetic transcription with the infinitive cliché introduced by Fenimore Cooper in his novel The Last of the Mohicans. Such a transcription should be unnecessary, although it is a concession to the viewer to understand what is going on. Now, many will ask: did sign language really exist among American tribes? And the answer is yes, what is now known as PISL (Plains Indian Sign Language), which was almost a century ahead of European and Ottoman sign languages.

It should be noted that the plains in question were the so-called Interior Plains, that vast region that stretched across North America from Texas to the Great Lakes (with an extension through Canada that reached Alaska), wedged between the Appalachians in the east and the Rocky Mountains in the west. A landscape of vast grasslands that were the habitat of huge herds of buffalo, behind which moved numerous nomadic peoples who lived from them, but also a group of semi-sedentary tribes. Among the first ones were the Lakotas, Cheyennes, Blackfeet, Comanches, Crows, Kiowas or Arapahoes, to mention the best known, while of the second ones there were the Pawnee, Wichitas, Arikaras, Iowas, Mandan…

Illustration on signs in an early 20th century newspaper / Image: public domain on Wikimedia Commons

This ethnic-cultural variety, combined with the size of the territory (more than two and a half million square kilometres), meant that the number of languages they spoke increased greatly, making contact between groups difficult even when some of these languages came from common trunks and shared philological foundations. As the indigenous people did not have a formal education system or dictionaries, the need to develop a system of communication to enable those from far away to understand each other was facilitated.

Obviously, since the American tribes lived in a prehistoric culture, they lacked written documents and therefore we cannot know at what point the PISL appeared. We must be satisfied with the testimonies left by Spaniards such as Alvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca, a shipwrecked man who lived with them for several years, and Francisco Vázquez de Coronado, an explorer of the interior of what is now the United States and whose second, García López de Cárdenas, discovered the Grand Canyon of the Colorado. They were the first Europeans, during the first half of the 16th century, to establish a relationship with the Indians by using a gestural language that proved so effective that the lack of interpreters did not matter.

The Interior Plains or Great Plains, in red / Image: public domain on Wikimedia Commons

It is believed that the PISL began to develop when the horse became widespread. Horses had become extinct in America some eleven thousand years ago, during the Pleistocene, so those used by the Indians were descendants of Maroons, that is, specimens that escaped from the Spaniards and went into the wild. In fact, the word used to designate them, mustang, derives from the Spanish Mesteño. Coronado had hundreds of horses with him but only two mares, so, in search of the origin, the expedition of Juan de Oñate in 1592, who had a herd of mares and stallions, would have more possibilities. Although we also know that some Indians from the southwest fled from the service imposed by the Spaniards, taking horses with them.

The nomadic natives we mentioned earlier learned to catch and ride them, which was essential not only to help them survive in the great grasslands but also to prevail over rival tribes, as the Comanches and Sioux did. The other semi-sedentary group probably inherited the tradition of Hispanic domestication, like the aforementioned people. The fact is that, given the scarcity of predators and their reproductive capacity, by the beginning of the 18th century there were already wild herds of horses numbering in the hundreds, as the French explorer Claude Charles du Tisne testified.

Dispersion of the horse in North America between 1600 and 1775 / Image: LynnWysong on Wikimedia Commons

Among the Plains Indians there were almost forty languages spoken, which were grouped into twelve language families. Each of these groups developed its own PISL, probably at first as a means of hunting or silent ambush, later found useful for intertribal trade. What is not known is where exactly it came from; the balance is usually tipped towards a southern apparition, from which it spread northwards. Thus, some scholars point to the Kiowa environment, but it seems more likely the proposal of others towards northern Mexico (considering that the border was much further north than now) or Texas, which was the most important commercial center and where there was a veritable tangle of languages that constituted an obstacle.

However, if we add the various elements mentioned, such as this region, the spread of the horse and the testimonies of Cabeza de Vaca and Coronado, we should also take into account the proposal of some authors to link the origin of this gestural language with the arrival of the Spanish. In any case, we said, although the PISL became a form of lingua franca, it adopted its own dialectal characteristics by regions. Many of them have been lost due to the demographic collapse and the acculturation, so that if in the past everybody knew the system of signs, nowadays they are a minority and it is only used as an instrument of transmission of stories and legends, complementing the oral tradition.

Extension of sign languages throughout North America, including the PISL (in red) and other dialectal variants such as Plateau Sign Language (in yellow) / Image: Danachos on Wikimedia Commons

A case of practical extinction is that of the so-called Plateau Sign Language, a predecessor limited to the extreme northwest of the present United States and created by tribes of the Crow Nation. Another would be the Chinook Wawa (Chinook Jargon), used in a coastal area from Oregon to Alaska and which, given its late nineteenth-century development, incorporated numerous borrowings from English and French. In other words, there is a clear tendency to seek some form of common communication, given that, as we explained earlier, we are talking about four dozen peoples, each of which used to be subdivided into multiple groups and these into tribes.

A classic example to understand it: the Sioux nation was integrated by the Dakota, the Lakota, the Assiniboine and the Nakoda; and to each one of these groups belonged, distributed, the Montana, Minnesota, Nebraska, Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Oglala, Brulé, Hunkpapa, Mineconjou, etc. In short, such an enormous variety and distributed over such a vast territory that, inevitably, gave rise to numerous languages; it is logical that sign languages were also varied and researchers have been able to certify about fifteen of them, which can be grouped by language families: Algonquin, Atapasco, Caddoan, Cayenne, Kutenai, Numic, Pimano, Sahaptian, Salishan, Siouan, Tanoan, Wyandot, Yuma and Zuñi.

Some signs of the PISL / Image: Indian Sign Language

One could add to them, as dialectal variants, the sign language of the Navajo, which is very specific (and apparently derived from a high incidence of deafness in that people) and some others like that of the Blackfoot (not to be confused with the Blackfeet, despite having the same name), the Cree and the Ojibwa. They all had in common the gestural use of the hands: their spatial placement (in front of the face, in front of the chest…), their movements, the way they put their fingers and the orientation of the speaker. These gestures were completed with other facial expressions that would do the same function as intonation when speaking, so that the PISL was made up of a thousand basic signs in total, although some elaborate dictionaries now even double or even triple the number.

It should be clarified that the signs had a more lexical than grammatical meaning (a question, for example) and some interpretation was necessary on the part of the receiver, since there was no pre-established order for the words (although, logically, there was a tendency towards the scheme subject + verb + complement). And, despite the differences from one language to another, the practitioners could understand each other.

Sources: Hand Talk. Sign Language Among American Indian Nations (Jeffrey E. Davies) / Indian Sign Language (William Tomkins) / Sign Talk of the Cheyenne Indians and Other Cultures (Ernest Thompson Seton) / Indians of the Plains (Robert H. Lowie) / The Plains Indians (Paul Howard Carlsson) / Pieles rojas. Encuentros con el hombre blanco (Victoria Oliver) / Hand Talk (PISL Research) /Proel/Wikipedia