Home > Deaf History, Videos > Talking Hands the quiet language of early Native Americans

Talking Hands the quiet language of early Native Americans

September 4, 2007

 Written by Bug

There are many fine books about the Native American Indians. The problem is that Indian Sign Language books are hard to find. Today this language is rarely to be seen anywhere. I found the rare videos, see below.

For untold thousands of years the American Indian people have communicated with sign language. Indian Sign Language is believed to have been the first widely used North American language. Records of early European visitors frequently note that Native Americans were proficient in communication through the use of signs.  The need for some universal means of communication is obvious, considering the large number of Indian tribes living in North America when the first Europeans arrived. Most of these tribes had their own distinct language, often much different from that of their neighbors. Verbal communication would have been tough. Indian Sign Language was the answer. It was the primary language of trade and commerce. Apparently it became standardized at a fairly early date with the same signs used almost universally with only slight variations from tribe to tribe.  I first learned about Indian Sign Language when I found an old dusty book at the Aspen Camp School for the Deaf where I worked for years. It interested me so I taught myself. This early interest in Indian Sign Language rekindled at camp. We set up the Indian Village there where many people came to enjoy learning the past of Native American history such as dance, foods, music, and many more, of coure, including Indian Sign Language. We had Native American guests visiting us. It was fun.  

A few years later I met Deaf Native American from Indian Reservation at South Dakota. We became close friends. She taught me the beautiful Indian Sign Language. She loved talking about her grandparents and great grandparents in the history of Native America. I found this interesting that many relatives in her family were Deaf. Most of them didn’t go to Deaf school. They knew American Sign Language (ASL) and Indian Sign Language. Most time they used their own “Home Sign” in their own Indian Sign Language so they could communicate better with others  just like if your family doesn’t know sign language so you use the gestures and “home” sign.  

I wish to continue learning more Indian Sign Language but unfortunelly my beloved Native American friend passed away three years ago. I will treasure the values and history what I’ve learned from my beloved Native American friend.

I found some interesting videos of Indian Sign Languages at youtube under Tommyfoley, special thanks to him. Enjoy watching.

To see more videos, go to Tommy’s youtube profile and pick the video you wish to view. Click: http://www.youtube.com/profile_videos?user=tommyfoley&p=r

Categories: Deaf History, Videos
  1. September 4, 2007 at 3:31 pm

    This is interesting.
    I remember a Deaf boy, at GSD in 1973, who told me his mother knew indian signs.
    He, then, looked at her and signed, “Indian sign,” so as to ask if she could, and she nodded.

  2. Penny
    September 4, 2007 at 4:13 pm

    Brilliant work. I watched all of them. As all of us know Indians were horribly oppressed by white people and the white people distributed them whiskey and it is why many of them today are addicted to alcohol and drugs. It is the same parallel what we are going through today. Hearing advocates are distributing cochlear implants to adults and children to destroy our culture and language. Too bad adults are sticking their tongues out showing very excited to get cochlear implants like excited dogs. Hearing advocates is almost winning but we will prevail!

  3. Silentredwolf
    September 4, 2007 at 4:48 pm

    Hard to find indian sign language book? Naw, you can find easily by purchase at any stores, museums, or artcraft store in any reservations. My wife is Choctaw/Crow/English. She certified interpereter and been interpreting with Deaf Native americans for many years. Many Deaf native american use asl mix with Indian sign language. She can speak little native american language, Cherokee, Lakota, and Navajo. Many signs are pretty cool, you know required use right hand/arm and left hand/arm to sign right way. ASL, not matter which hands/arms to use. Pretty Interesting.

  4. September 4, 2007 at 4:52 pm

    fascinating! believe there are a few research in the SouthWest by Deaf people on Deaf people in Indian tribes. If I remember correctly, their Sign Language was also studied. Believe Dr. Sam Supalla knows or was involved.
    Also, if my memory is as valid as I hope it is, I saw some pictures of Indian Signs in an old Boy Scout handbook. I remember vaguely learning a few signs from HEARING leaders at a day camp when I was young.
    Also, my mother who is Deaf and spent first several years of her life near an Indian reservation in Southern California. She lived there with her immigrant parents and grandparents and one grandmother worked (or volunteered) on the reservation and my mom being only Deaf in her family said she learned signs from Indians. I have been thinking about doing more research into this reservation and the tribe(s) there during that time and seeing if I can get more information about the Indian signs there that my mother learned.
    I agree, this is a subject worthy of our study and understanding. The videos are fascinating to watch.

  5. Lisa Marie
    September 4, 2007 at 5:34 pm

    I am so speechless!

    You are all the way on the top!

  6. Greg
    September 4, 2007 at 7:21 pm

    Very interesting! I remembered when I used to live in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. I met some geninue Deaf natives at ASD (Alberta School for the Deaf) when I was a student there. I asked some of them. They showed me some but not whole. When I saw these videos, I remembered some signs. I am glad that you show us these.

  7. C
    September 4, 2007 at 9:16 pm

    That was enjoyable to watch. I can see where some signs kind of resemble ASL or even some home made signs that some deaf still use. The flag sign was very similar.

  8. September 4, 2007 at 9:46 pm

    I found your article to be most interesting. I live on Vancouver Island and there are several separate languages and dialects of the Salish people on the island alone. There are alot of educational forums here so that we can understand the history and concerns of Aboriginal Canadians (especially the need to preserve the languages) but I have not yet heard of any work to preserve their sign language. Until now, I have not read anything at all about North American sign language, and I am so glad to have found your article. Wonderful.

  9. Mike
    September 4, 2007 at 10:32 pm

    Indian Sign Language
    By Tomkins, William
    Illustrated by A. J
    . Stover
    Published 1969
    Courier Dover
    Language Arts
    / Linguistics / Literacy
    111 pages
    ISBN 048622029X

    Buy this book
    Google Product Search

    Borrow this book
    Find this book in a library

    Learn to communicate without words with these authentic signs! Learn over 525 signs developed by the Sioux, Blackfoot, Cheyenne, Arapahoe, and other tribes. Written instructions and diagrams show you how to make the words and construct sentences. Book also contains 290 pictographs (language in pictures) of the Sioux and Ojibway tribes.

    I use this same book since I was young and i still had my book with me for my “treasure” and memories because My aunt, grandfather, were Indian use sign language to communicate to me My great grandma of my father’s side was full Cheyenne Indian and my great grandpa (half Choctaw) & my great great grandpa (full Choctaw) of my father’s side

    Good luck to find this book!!!

  10. Deaf Socrate's Trail
    September 4, 2007 at 11:00 pm

    AWE! Speechless!
    My deep roots from the Plain, Sioux tribes used a lot of Indian Sign Language or Plain Sign Talk in that only area where there were many different tribes under one Sioux. Saying about 7 or 8 different tribes in the plain (Northern from Kansas to North Dakota and from the river- Mississppi river to Wyoming. They used sign language because many of those tribes spoke very different dialect! The purpose of using that signs for peace or trade treaty because they often fought against each other over land and food. They often moved along with buffalo where they were depended for their food and clothes, Not Eastern or Western I do not know about that.

  11. September 5, 2007 at 8:02 am


    Hard to find Indian Sign Language books? Have you try eBay? Amazon? Or go to your local library?

    Anyway, what an interesting articles that you wrote.


  12. September 5, 2007 at 10:39 am

    How strange that many people who already had a spoken language among themselves would invent a sign language, instead of just learning each others’ language…

    how strange that they would communicate with other tribes in silence…adopting the way of the deaf…

    the wisdom of the Indian in showing us the way of silence in making peace…

  13. ASL Risen
    September 5, 2007 at 11:04 am

    WOW, thanks so much for sharing this Indian Sign Language video clips!


  14. Lipstick
    September 5, 2007 at 11:06 am

    Awesome footage! Thank you so much for sharing these films!

  15. Debbie
    September 5, 2007 at 12:41 pm

    Freaking awesome!!! Thanks for sharing this video clip. 🙂

  16. September 5, 2007 at 7:12 pm


  17. September 5, 2007 at 11:08 pm

    Dear FB readers,

    Thank you for your support. All of you have interesting comments. Keep sharing, thanks. I hope we will have more stories about the Deaf Native Americans….they should not be forgotten. I’ve seen a few Indian Sign Language books but I would like to see more. 🙂

    Mike, thank you for the wonderful information. I will check it out.


  18. greyfeather
    October 8, 2007 at 12:53 pm

    every monthly of first week, the deer clan have meeting so they called me greyfeather. my name is kim also deaf. so i would like to try find indina
    sign launage so i can teach all of deer clan people.
    thank u for share this videos. I’m still look family tree to see who indina in my family but only i know it’s my daddy’s family cuz my grandfather and his sisters and brothers are looks alike indina very strong. I will need to see my great aunt to chance before she gone bc of she is only one left alive.

  19. silentredwolf
    June 3, 2008 at 1:30 pm

    You can check out Intertribal Deaf Council – http://www.deafnative.com

  20. ghosthorse
    December 13, 2008 at 12:42 pm

    I am half Navajo and live on the East Coast – learned native sign when i was young back in the 50’s.
    Now at 58 i am learning ASL and am doing a report on native sign for my Deaf Studies class – thank you so much for givinb me a visual aid for my finals presentation!

  21. Dragonfly
    June 23, 2009 at 10:40 pm

    Thanks so much for showing these clips on native sign language.Very interesting as our family also uses sign language with our youngest.My older children are also learning Ojibwa as their second language.We are Pottawatomie.

  22. August 21, 2010 at 7:34 pm

    how u are doing ? i am fine.. hope u get email from me ..
    i have history navajo family macks ..
    i know some lang sign navajo from my grandma navajo .. i am full of indian half navajo ..
    hope u get email from me ..
    nice day ,
    tracey macks

  23. tracey macks
    December 26, 2010 at 2:50 pm

    hello anyone !
    how u are doing ? i am fine ..
    i have tell u that i am deaf whole my life .. i am indian half navajo also my brother ..
    i knw sign lang everything to indian and navajo ..i love it . i love family are indian and navajo are history ..
    this my name is tracey ann macks .. i am married my husband his shane paul johnson and my 2 daughters are young .. we are live in baldwin country alabama .. nice meet to u smile ..

  24. Bethann
    December 23, 2012 at 6:52 pm

    Hello, My name is Bethann and I am deaf and I also am part of Indian – Cherokee…. I really loves to meet the Deaf Native America Community and get involes and shares the talks togheters, Also I would love to join the Deaf Native America Community…. Also, when I was younger as child and my grandma uses to be around with native america babies – children whole of her life.!!!!! Thats why I am almost the same like my grandmother does…. So, Hope hear from you guys by email….. 🙂

  1. September 4, 2007 at 9:25 pm
  2. February 8, 2008 at 1:12 am
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