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Science Nation: Indian Hand Talk

3 minutes

[MUSIC]

Buffalo, come. Go straight. Jump over.

NARRATOR: This extraordinary film from 1930 shows Plains Indians sign language, or hand talk. Both deaf and hearing members of dozens of Native American tribes have used it for at least 200 years, perhaps much longer. But there may be just a few dozen users today.

There was something about the sign language that made it seem like maybe neutral, that it didn't dominate any of the other languages.

NARRATOR: With help from the National Science Foundation, the University of Tennessee sign language linguistics Professor Jeffrey Davis is documenting the grammar, structure, and uses of hand talk.

We give thanks for the earth, which gives us food and water.

NARRATOR: At a visit to the Tennessee School for the Deaf, James Woodenlegs from the Northern Cheyenne, and Melanie MacKay Cody from the Cherokee Choctaw explain how tribes across most of North America have relied on this common language.

When they got together. They might want to trade for clothing or something. Then they would use this inter-tribal communication. We've been traveling to the different tribes to try to find people who are still living in hopes of maybe compiling a dictionary.

I am a Cheyenne. These people are all my brothers.

NARRATOR: During the depression, retired general Hugh Scott arranged for Chiefs and elders to meet in Montana. He filmed them using hand talk for the Department of the Interior.

Young men are not learning your sign language and soon it will disappear from this country.

NARRATOR: Davis learned about these films in a casual chat with another researcher at the National Archives.

I couldn't believe that these films existed. It's unparalleled that this many Chiefs and elders came together for this purpose.

It's very complex and richly layered linguistically and culturally. And that's the thing we really want to get across.

Even if you're not understanding the language sometimes, you can tell it's beautiful voice. That's what this is like. This is beautiful, beautiful signing.

NARRATOR: Half of the world's 6,000 spoken and signed languages are endangered. Those who love this unspoken language believe it would be a shame if it died, hands down. For Science Nation, I'm Myles O'Brien.

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James Woodenlegs first learned to communicate using Plains Indians Sign Language from his family, growing up on the Northern Cheyenne Reservation in Montana. Also known as “hand talk,” the language has been used by both deaf and hearing Indians from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico for at least 200 years, possibly much longer. Woodenlegs is working with sign language scholars Jeffrey Davis and Melanie McKay-Cody to document and preserve hand talk, one of thousands of the world’s endangered languages.

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Runtime: 3 minutes

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