3. A Universal Language for the Ages

(This is the Lesson Plan 3 for Shane Doyle’s curricular unit, “Tribal Oral Traditions and Languages in the Plains Region of the Lewis and Clark Trail.”)

Plains Sign Language (PSL)

Lesson Topic: Northern Plains Knowledge of their Homelands

Grade Band: Grades 9-12

Length of lesson: Two 50-minute periods


Big Ideas:

Northern Plains people lived in a cosmopolitan region where many different tribes and languages existed.

Northern Plains people shared a common language and common landscape for thousands of years, traveling through hundreds of thousands of square miles and learning the area with astonishing accuracy and detail.

Plains Sign Language is the world’s first and only universal language that was developed to share and trade culture among a multitude of tribes who all shared a balance of power in a region that stretched from Edmonton, Alberta, to the Gulf of Mexico, and from the Rocky Mountains to the Mississippi River. Wherever the bison was found, so too was Plains Sign Language.

Enduring Understandings:

Plains Indians enjoyed friendly relations for thousands of years before the arrival of horses, disease, firearms, food shortages, and displacement due to colonization.

Plains Sign Language is one of the greatest achievements of Plains Indian culture and is incomparable to any other shared language in world history because it is non-colonial and is based upon ideas and concepts that link together the people of the Plains.

Northern Plains people’s use of sign language was related to their unique landscape, which is highly visible and widely shared by over a dozen different tribes and language groups.

Northern Plains sign language was developed on the open plains, where many tribes shared mental maps of the broad and open landscape, where their neighbors lived in plain view.

Essential Question(s):

  • How is Plains Sign Language unique?
  • How does Plains Sign Language indicate a close relationship between Plains tribes with different languages?
  • How can we use Plains Sign Language to express our ideas and experiences?

Place-based Considerations:
Plains Sign Language works on the Plains better than any other place because much of it is based on the four directions, which are all visible from anywhere on the prairie or in the high hills and island mountain ranges.  The sign language is rendered much less effective east of the Mississippi where the thick forest is dominant on the landscape and the four directions are less prominent.


“Honoring Tribal Legacies” is a journey of healing  

Learning about the remarkable cultural achievements of the multi-cultural northern Plains people is an important part of understanding the beautiful nature of Northern Plains traditions.  Respect, dignity, humor, compassion, generosity and trust are all values that are exemplified by the history and nature of Plains Sign Language.



Suggested Formative Assessment of Learning Outcomes:  READ worksheets.

Culminating Performance Assessment of Learning Outcomes:

Students create a description of their day or a recent event using PSL. The description should include at least ten PSL words/concepts.




The Greatest Language Ever Invented and Never Spoken or Written:    Written Language Compared to the Oral Tradition and Plains Sign Language

The advent of written language throughout world history has always been very closely tied to the success of domesticated agriculture and sedentary life, and it is likely that the lack of this strong agricultural foundation is what caused the tribal groups of the Great Plains to share a predominantly oral tradition. This oral tradition connected over 44 different tribes and includes a multitude of remarkably beautiful and dynamic ways of engaging with one another peacefully, respectfully, and ceremonially.  As hunter-gatherer-traders, Plains Indian tribal leaders understood that effective and vibrant forms of communication were critically important to on-going economic continuity, community stability, and familial well-being. The Great Plains oral traditions were unrivaled throughout the ancient world in their generosity between and among tribes, and to the extent that their mutual ceremonial interaction was revered and respected.  Gift-giving and participatory ceremonial inclusion highlighted the interactive lives of Plains Indian people, and much of the history, spirit, and practice of this community-centered way of life is embodied in what we know as Plains Indian Sign Language, or PSL.

The use and proliferation of PSL is one of the great wonders of the ancient world.  No other sign language or spoken language in history was known and utilized by so many linguistically different groups and spoken over such a vast region.  The language was known and spoken by at least 44 different tribal groups and stretched from Edmonton, Alberta, in the north, to the Gulf of Mexico in the south, from the Rocky Mountains in the west, to the Mississippi River in the east; a territory larger than western Europe and India, combined.  Only in the colonial world of the 19th century did a single language, such as English, Russian, or French, cover a broader swath of land, which only emphasizes the unique nature of PSL, given the fact that it was not imposed upon tribal communities from an outside force with a superior army or economic engine.  Neither did PSL become dominant because of disease, death, or destruction.  Plains Sign Language became widely spoken because of the uniquely diplomatic and non-dominant tribal societies of the Great Plains.

Although sign language was noted by Europeans to be spoken across the continent by presumably every tribe, Plains Sign Language was probably developed on the Great Plains, where it was used most universally.  An ancient form of communication, it was likely developed thousands of years ago, when distinctly different tribes lived a seasonal way of life on the Plains.  Their lives were dependent upon an economy based on hunting animals, gathering wild plants and trees, and trading with other tribes for things they did not have themselves.  During this ancient time, tribal communities were quite stable and thus had very few violent encounters or fights.  Instead, they sought one another’s good graces for the most important of all cultural purposes—human sharing and interaction.  This time of peace and plenty on the Great Plains stands in contrast to the 19th century tribal interactions, which were colored by a great loss of life, dire economic instability, and significant armed conflict, which was perpetuated by desperation and powered by the newly acquired horses.  Tribal community cohesion throughout the Great Plains was shattered in the late 1700s and is still in the process of healing and regaining its stability.

Despite their historic struggle with colonialism and catastrophic loss, Plains Indian communities continue to benefit greatly from their oral traditions.  A beautiful and deeply human way of experiencing the world, the oral traditions of Plains Indian people have survived in the face of overwhelming change and upheaval, and they still teach great lessons throughout Native American communities in the 21st century.  Without any written word, the oral tradition, highlighted by PSL, communicated the science, history, astronomy, geography, community and familial as well as spiritual traditions to all tribal members through the living breath.  Loved ones and elder mentors continue to share their knowledge of life through example and stories, told with the spoken word, and some amount of sign language as well.  The oral tradition amongst Plains Indians is powerful because of all of these things and because the ceremonial traditions that are embedded in it seek to harmoniously balance the individual and the community and maintain vast quantities of sacred information about the Plains Indian world and everything in it.

Entry Question(s):  What do you currently know about sign language and its use?  Do you know anything about Native Americans’ use of sign language?


1930 Indian Sign Language Council (full text included below).

Indian Sign Language Council 1930 video

Plains Sign Language with Hidatsa words

Plains Sign Language story of Apsáalooke (Crow) history

Plains Sign Language with Dakota words

Sign Language Dictionary


Learning Modalities:

Auditory, visual, kinesthetic, tactile.

Situated Practice: Distribute the article about the 1930 Indian Sign Language Council to students individually or in small groups. Ask students to read the article and complete the READ worksheet included.  Utilizing the READ worksheet will help students read an academic article by making hypotheses, exploring, looking for clarification, and generating conclusions. Allow students time to complete the READ worksheet.  When worksheets are complete, ask students to share their READs in small groups.

Overt Instruction:  Begin viewing several of the videos demonstrating Plains Sign Language.  How is the language used by tribal members to describe their feelings about being at the council?  Read about the history of the council and then complete the READ worksheet included.  Upon completion of the READ worksheet, students will create two sentences that describe their day or a recent day.  The sentences can be written out to begin with but must then be signed by the individual using Plains Sign Language.  The Crow/English/Sign language resource should be used for this assignment.  The teacher can then ask the students to sign within their small groups, or in front of the entire class.  Observing students will write down the sign language sentences on a piece of paper and then compare their understanding to the original sentences written by the person who signed.  This comparison is meant to gauge the accuracy of the communication.

Critical Framing:  Being bi-lingual is empowering because it allows us to communicate with more people and gives us insight into how languages reflect the culture, worldview, values and experiences of the community that speaks it.

Differentiated instruction for advanced and struggling learners: Teachers or aides can read through the Sign Language Council article with struggling learners. Learners can follow along and complete the READ worksheet with varying amounts of teacher assistance as needed.


The 1930 Indian Sign Language Council (Excerpt)

by Dana Willner

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, American ethnographers under the auspices of the Smithsonian’s Bureau of Ethnology (now defunct) took a vested interest in PSL and collaborated with Indian Sign Talkers to document and explore the language through written descriptions, drawings, photographs, and even video (see sources no. 3, 23, 24 at the end of this essay). Ironically, this was also the period when PSL was in rapid decline due to American assimilationist policies and acts of cultural genocide targeted at Indians, as described below.

Through collaborative work with many prolific Native signers, Garrick Mallery, a former US Army officer, was the largest contributor of written and photographic information on PSL to the Smithsonian’s records (3, 19, 23, 24). Mallery had radical views for the time, openly decrying the government’s “Indian Policy” and the injustices perpetrated by the US government, making him unpopular among his colleagues, but fueling his success as an ethnologist (3). Many well known and revered Indian leaders who were prolific signers worked with Mallery, enabling him to amass a vast body of work describing PSL and comparing it to other signed languages (3, 19, 24). For example, Chief Red Horse of the Minneconjou Lakota supported Mallery’s efforts, telling his renowned first-hand account of the Battle of Little Big Horn both in sign and speech and later providing extraordinary ledger drawings of the event, all of which still exist in the Smithsonian’s collection today (3, 24, 25).

While the work of Mallery and his collaborators and contemporaries provided written and pictographic records of PSL, they most often relied on drawings of hand positions and descriptions of signs and reconstructions from the point of view of American ethnographers, and thus were a pale simulacrum of the true nature of the language. In 1930, the 71st Congress passed an act authorizing 5000 dollars for the audio and video recording of PSL under the direction of General Hugh L. Scott, a proficient signer who had devoted his life to PSL after retiring from government service (26). Under the auspices of the Smithsonian, the allocated funds were used to stage and record the three days 1930 Indian Sign Language Council (or Conference), hosted by Mountain Chief of the Amskapi Pikuni (Piegan/Blackfeet Confederacy) in Browning, Montana (3, 27). Mountain Chief, who was 82 years old at the time of the conference, was the last hereditary Chief of the Blackfeet, and was renowned as both a great warrior and leader (28). He was a prolific signer, story-teller, and ledger artist (3, 29), and as such was a key contributor to Scott’s efforts as well as the Smithsonian’s collections in general, visiting Washington D.C. on several occasions to collaborate with ethnographers and linguists (3). The Council brought together representatives from 12 tribal and 7 language groups spanning the Plains, Plateau, and Basin areas and also included General Scott himself as a participant as well as government officials as observers (30).

In order to properly acknowledge the PSL signers gathered at the Council, who were revered leaders and diplomats, they are listed here by name followed by tribal affiliation: Bird Rattler, Pikuni; Little Plume, Pikuni; Mountain Chief, Pikuni; Night Shoots, Pikuni; Jim White Calf, Pikuni; Short Face, Pikuni; Richard Sanderville, Pikuni; Dick Washakie, Shoshone; Bitterroot Jim, Salish; Strange Owl, Tse’tsehestahese (Northern Cheyenne); Assiniboine Boy, A’aniinen (Gros Ventre); Rides Black Horse, Nakota (Assiniboine); Fine Young Man, Tsuu T’ina (Sarcee); Joe Big Plume, Tsuu T’ina; Drags Wolf, Hidatsa; Iron Whip, Fort Peck Lakota; Deer Nose, Apsáalooke (Crow); James Eagle, Arikara; Foolish Woman, Mandan; and Tom White Horse, Arapaho (3, 30, 31). It is worth noting that all of the participants were hearing (as opposed to deaf) and male (3, 30). The original Council films were recorded on 8mm and are available from the Smithsonian (23) and the Blackfoot Digital Library (27), but were digitally remastered by Jeffrey Davis through grants from national funding agencies (3, 31). The remastered films have increased visual clarity and also overlay audio and written interpretations which were generated at the time of the original filming by Scott and Fred Sanderville, a Pikuni tribal leader and long-time collaborator of Scott’s (3). Sanderville and Scott also produced accompanying films later in 1934 at the Smithsonian including a visual dictionary and several signed narratives (3).

Written descriptions can hardly do justice to the prodigious talent, showmanship, and proficiency of the men gathered at the 1930s conference. Dr. Jeffrey Davis has “[compared] the visual eloquence of the master signers on the 1930s films to listening to a great actor, such as James Earl Jones, deliver a speech (22).” The Council film collection consists of opening remarks by Scott, introductions by all participants, individual story-telling by Mountain Chief, White Horse, Strange Owl and BitterRoot Jim (labelled by Scott as “Sagas in sign”), a candid view of participants conversing (labelled “Intertribal play-by-play” and “Jokes and Wisecracks in Signs”), and finally closing remarks from Scott (31). Several participants acknowledged the use of PSL as a lingua franca in their introductions, with BitterRoot Jim signing “I have never seen these people here before, and cannot understand their language, but we are all brothers,” and Night Shoots explaining that “[these] people all use different languages” (3, 31). The stories told in PSL include 1) Mountain Chief’s account of traditional buffalo hunting using buffalo jumps, accompanied by chanting, 2) BitterRoot Jim telling a traditional bear medicine story, 3) White Horse comparing the Indian ability to communicate in dreams to the radio, and 4) Strange Owl’s personal hunting story from when he was a teenager, which was accompanied by spoken language (31). The storytelling is vivid and engaging, demonstrating the iconic and extremely visual nature of PSL and also the synthesis of signs with singing and spoken language, indicative of the proficiency and narrative abilities of the signers. Conversational PSL is highlighted in the later film sections (whose titles reflect the antiquated language and opinions of the time) where participants are shown in effortless, natural conversation, punctuated by laughter (31). It is also interesting to note the conversational hand talk going on in the background during story-telling segments, most noticeably during BitterRoot Jim’s story (31). This serves to reinforce the point that PSL was in actuality the common mode of discourse between speakers of disparate languages, not a staged performance for the camera (31).


Ceremony, conversation, and covert communication: PSL and spoken language

The 1930 Indian Sign Language Council demonstrated the use of PSL for communication and storytelling between individuals who spoke different languages, however, PSL has also been widely used by speakers of the same language, often in combination with speech, to serve a variety of cultural, practical, and linguistic purposes. At the 1930 Council, Mountain Chief told of buffalo hunting practices involving the buffalo jump (31). This was a traditional Blackfeet hunting practice which he would most likely not have witnessed or participated in his lifetime, as buffalo jumps were estimated to have fallen out of use several hundred years prior to his birth (32). Mountain Chief would have learned this story from his elders, and then, in turn, passed it along to the next generation. In 1997, Dr. Melanie McKay-Cody, a Cherokee/Choctaw linguist and deaf advocate, interviewed a 35-year-old male Tse’tsehestahese (Northern Cheyenne) PSL signer who had learned and was able to recount a nearly identical buffalo hunting story from his elders (13). Dr. McKay-Cody, identified as a 68-year-old female Apsáalooke (Crow) signer, knew the story but did not provide a re-telling, as cultural tradition only permits males to do so (13). Dr. Brenda Farnell transcribed stories told in simultaneous speech and sign by James Earthboy and other elders that comprise vital parts of the Nakota oral tradition, including the history of the Nakota and their territory and an Inktomi (the Trickster) story (12).

These are just some of many examples which indicate that PSL was and still is part of a long-standing trans-generational oral tradition, used to transmit cultural and practical knowledge, which is not strictly oral, but includes an integral signed component (3, 8, 12, 13).  The signed component of the trans-generational tradition is more than a carbon-copy of what is spoken, but rather can serve to clarify spoken discourse and also impart complementary information and/or additional meanings which go beyond the spoken word (12). Nakota elders at the Fort Belknap and Fort Peck Reservations taught Dr. Farnell about the uses and meanings of PST in Nakota story-telling and everyday life, and its relationship with the spoken language (12).

One of the uses of signing in story-telling is for orientation in geographic space (12). The space around the story-teller is a circle and the cardinal directions designate four quarters (12). The cardinal direction that the storyteller is facing acts as the reference point and spoken words such as “this way,” “over there,” or “down here,” are accompanied by signs which indicate the actual direction such as northeast, south, or southwest (12). James Earthboy provides a narrative account of Nakota history including the full range of the tribe’s traditional territory using spoken Nakota coupled with PSL (12, 33). There are many examples where the signs he uses indicate the orientation in space of his spoken words. For example, to complete the borders of Nakota territory, he says that “To White Earth [River] they go. After you get there again you go from there to what is called the ‘mysterious line'” (Farnell, p. 67). Mr. Earthboy himself is oriented to the southwest and through signs shows that from the White Earth River, one must go to the northwest, pointing over his right shoulder (the first “there”), and then indicates moving southwest to cross the Canadian border (from the second “there” to the “mysterious line”) by signing forward, since that is the direction he is facing (12, 33). Dr. Farnell observes that if Mr. Earthboy had been facing a different direction, his signs would have adjusted accordingly to maintain the cardinal directions inherent in the story (12).

The circular space around a storyteller can also be used for more local orientation within the context of the story itself, since, as Nakota elder Emma Lamebull explains, “Long ago, they said, everything we did in a circle, like in a tipi, we always sat in a circle and looked at each other’s faces. When we ate we sat in a circle. When we would talk and visit each other, tell stories, we sat in a circle” (12, p. 191).

James Earthboy uses spoken language and signs to tell the story of when Inktomi, the trickster, held a council with all of the animals (including birds) to determine how many hot versus cold months there should be in the year (12, 33). During the deliberations, the animals are arranged in a circle. Mr. Earthboy establishes the position of the characters in the circle at the beginning and uses signs indicating the location to clarify which character is meant by ambiguous third person referents such as “he” or “they” (12, 33). It is also interesting to note that while Inktomi can take on many forms, in Mr. Earthboy’s story he is a human male (12). This is never mentioned in the spoken language, and is indicated only by the particular variant of the sign for the verb “to be existing” which Mr. Earthboy uses, a variant which is only used to refer to humans (12, 33). Rose Weasel similarly uses a circular signing space to orient the characters in her telling of “The woman and twin boys born with stars on their foreheads” (12, 33). She establishes opposing sides in a tipi which correspond to each character and uses these to assign and direct dialogue (12, 33). Further, Mrs. Weasel adds a wealth of meaning to her spoken story through sign. For example, when she talks about a woman in the story, she says in Nakota “this woman” but signs a further description of “kept her belongings on this side of the tipi,” a detail of the story which would be unknown from the spoken language alone (12, 33).

James Earthboy and Rose Weasel’s masterful storytelling demonstrate that PSL is an integral part of the Nakota oral tradition, contributing to a holistic experience which would be incomplete without either component. However, “hand talk” is also an integral part of Nakota everyday discourse. For example, directions from one place to another may be given using speech such as, “go this way, then that way,” with accompanying signs indicating the relevant cardinal directions, thus making for clear and explicit instructions (12). During her time at Fort Belknap, Dr. Farnell observed many elders who used recognizable PSL signs while speaking (12). When asked previously as to whether they knew PSL, most had replied in the negative, as they were comparing themselves to fluent signers from past generations (12). Dr. Farnell explains that upon further questioning she “was told, ‘Of course, it’s part of the language'” (12, p. 2).  The Nakota also use the English term “word” to describe both spoken and signed utterances (12). Dr. Farnell illustrates this duality by relating a particular incident “when [she] asked one of [her] teachers for the spoken equivalent of a signed utterance by saying ‘How would you say that in Nakota?’ the reply was ‘Like I just showed you'” (12, p. 3).

The synergistic use of speech and sign is not unique to the Nakota. In the educational video “How the tribes of Montana got their names,” produced as part of the Indian Education for All initiative, Rob Collier, who demonstrates all of the PSL signs presented, recalls that “when [his Nimipuu grandfather] would talk to us he would sign” (8). Mr. Collier himself in the video is shown signing while speaking about PSL and the origins of tribal names (8). Dr. Vernon Finley, head of the Language Curriculum Project for the Kootenai Culture Committee, relates that “even two generations ago when the people spoke, even though they didn’t have to, as they were speaking they were signing” (8).   PSL is also utilized by speakers of the same language in the absence of spoken words, in situations where speech may be ill-advised, disruptive or difficult to comprehend (8). On Fort Belknap, Dr. Farnell observed that purely signed speech was regularly used when individuals were having a conversation in a noisy room, while others were speaking nearby, or over a distance, situations where speech might be awkward or even rude (10, p. 161). PSL was also routinely used for communication during warfare and hunting, when the noise of spoken language might put enemies or animals on the alert (8, 34). James Woodenlegs, who grew up on the Northern Cheyenne reservation and is fluent in both PSL and ASL, explains that while hunting: “I would sign to somebody else behind another tree and we would sign to each other, ‘Go to this tree.’ If we were to yell to each other, or call out to each other, the animals would run, so sign language is great for hunting” (34).


Thank you to Dr. Lanny Real Bird, Dr. Lynette Stein-Chandler, Mr. Michael Turcotte, Ms. Gigi Caye, Dr. Jeffrey Bendremer, and Mr. Mike LaFromboise for their personal responses to queries and valuable contributions to this research.



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