UT Linguist Plans Historic Meeting of Plains Indian Sign Talkers

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KNOXVILLE — A linguist at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, will convene a historic gathering of Native American sign language users this summer on the northern Great Plains.

Jeffrey Davis, an associate professor in the Department of Theory and Practice in Teacher Education, is identifying Plains Indian sign talkers who use the elaborate language so that it can be documented and revitalized in native communities. The conference will be held August 12-15 on the Northern Cheyenne reservation in southeastern Montana. It is funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF) through its Documenting Endangered Languages program.

Sign language provided a means of communication for members of Native American nations who spoke at least 40 different languages. It also was used within native communities as an alternative to their spoken languages and as a primary language for deaf people.

“Based on fieldwork the NSF funded in 2009, we have identified more than two dozen Plains Indian signers, including women and deaf tribal members from among the Northern Cheyenne, Crow, Blackfoot and Assiniboine,” Davis said. “We anticipate that more sign talkers will be identified as a result of this historic conference.”

Davis said the gathering will be the first since 1930, when retired U.S. Army general Hugh Scott called together chiefs and elders from a number of Plains Indian tribes in an effort to capture the disappearing language, which was used for communication between tribes. Using the latest in 1930s technology, Scott filmed the signers, but he died soon after, and the motion pictures were forgotten in the archives of the Smithsonian Institution.

The films came to light when Davis was stranded in a snowstorm at the National Archives in Washington D.C. with documentary filmmaker Ken Burns’ crew. They pointed out the collection to him and — with support from the NSF, the National Endowment for the Humanities and UT Knoxville — he rescued the films and had them digitized. The collection is now displayed and interpreted on a website that Davis maintains.

Davis is working with Melanie McKay-Cody, a sign language teacher at William Woods University in Missouri, who is both deaf and Chickamauga Cherokee/Choctaw. They expect fluent signers and students from tribal groups and colleges to attend.

“For the first time, we’ll bring together sign language linguists and deaf and American Indian individuals,” Davis said. “We hope that further collaboration with the tribes could lead to a hand talk dictionary and grammar that could be shared widely across many cultures.”

Davis is training UT students and native signers in linguistics, field methods and the use of new technologies for language documentation. The documentary materials collected will be made available to tribal schools and colleges and made accessible online to educate larger audiences and broaden awareness about the language and legacy of Native American cultures.

“Our goal is to use these for education and to raise awareness about this language,” Davis said. “That’s my goal — to educate others.”

Montana State University, the Little Bighorn National Monument, Chief Dull Knife College and the Northern Cheyenne nation are collaborating in the project.

For more details in the conference, visit http://sunsite.utk.edu/pisl/.

C O N T A C T :

Whitney Holmes (865-974-5460, wholmes7@utk.edu)

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