Many of us know what American Sign Language is, and some of us learned sign language in the classroom, even if we didn’t grow up with hearing loss. But rarely do we hear about Native American Sign Language (NASL).
With the beginning of Native American Heritage Month (which comes every November), we’ve decided to provide you with a brief intro to NASL, which has a very long and fascinating, yet largely unknown history. Google “Native American Sign Language” and you’ll be lucky to find extensive information on it. Hopefully one day TED Talks will pick a lecturer on this topic.
It’s one of, if not the oldest, universal sign language of any kind. Historians still dispute about the beginning of NASL—some claim it has been around for thousands of years, though many claim that historical accounts of NASL have only existed since the 16th century.
What’s the most intriguing about NASL? It’s an intertribal language and not specifically for deaf people. While there are many dialects of NASL, it’s universal for the most part, and two-thirds of tribes in America used it—which allowed a population with over 500 different dialects to interact with each other.
But it certainly serves as a form of communication for the hearing impaired in Native American communities. Though 40 million Americans are hearing impaired, the Native American demographic faces health disparities. For example, it has disproportionately high rates of otitis media—meaning, middle ear infection, which is often affected by many types of hearing loss.
I spoke to Mariah Gladstone, a Columbia University junior who has been fluent in NASL since she was three. She is the co-president of Native American Heritage Council at Columbia and performed at a NASL conference last summer in Browning, Montana. When she’s not in school, she lives on a reservation with her father—a Blackfoot—or with her Cherokee mother.
How did you learn Native American Sign Language?
I learned it mostly from books when I was three. My father, Jack Gladstone, is a musician and my mother thought it would be a cool trick to do Native American Sign Language with a couple of his songs, which are traditional Blackfoot stories. I’ve even made a couple of professionally shot music videos with him as I do the signs. My parents weren’t fluent in it at first, but they started learning it.
Tell me about the conference where you performed Native American Sign Language last summer.
In 1930, there was a historic Native American Sign Language conference in Browning, Montana. This conference in 2012 was a commemoration, and 50 different speakers from around 20 different nations came together to talk about the preservation of the language, dialectical differences. Lakota speakers would come up to show their variations, as would the Blackfeet. Mostly, there was a lot of signing back and forth, though we made a videotape of the signing with subtitles that’s on YouTube. There were even speakers that didn’t speak English but they were able to communicate their stories just by signing.
What kind of education in Native American Sign Language is there nowadays?
There are some colleges that teach it, such as Little Bighorn College, as well as plenty of programs. For example, I work for Red Hawk Native American Arts Council, which has these programs for schools in Brooklyn to learn NASL. My father and I do many of these programs together. We once even went to an Air Force base school where we went through security clearance. We did a program down at McDaniel College in Maryland. Immersion schools, elementary schools on reservation, also incorporate NASL.
What books do you recommend for learning Native American Sign Language?
Indian Sign Language by Williams Tomkins is the one I use. The book has basic signs and grammatical structures. Boy Scouts often use it to get a badge!