American Indian Sign Language

An indigenous man in traditional dress raises a hand to speak using sign language. He is communicating with a non-indigenous man. Both sit on the ground in front of a tipi.
Grey Whirlwind, in traditional Dakota dress, talking to Ernest Thompson Seton, non-native man, using sign Language in July 1927.

Photo courtesy of the National Anthropological Archives, Smithsonian Institution.

In September of 1930, the largest gathering of intertribal indigenous leaders ever filmed was held with the goal of documenting and preserving American Indian Sign Language (AISL), sometimes also referred to as Hand Talk. Bringing together 18 official participants, representing 12 tribes and language groups, the film from The Indian Sign Language Grand Council illustrates how participants use this nonverbal-communication modality to express a wide range of ideas in a group whose diversity of spoken languages surely inhibited verbal communication. This council was significant for a number of reasons, not the least of which was that documenting AISL was deemed so important the council was funded through an act of Congress. However, it was not the first time the use of AISL was documented in the American historical record. The ability of members of the Lewis and Clark Expedition to communicate with indigenous people through sign played a pivotal role in the success of the mission and is documented in the Expedition’s journals.

On August 14, 1805 Lewis and a small advance party encountered the Shoshones near Lemhi Pass. Lewis recorded, “The means I had of communicating with these people was by way of Drewyer [Drouillard] who understood perfectly the common language of jesticulation or signs which seems to be universally understood by all the Nations we have yet seen[.] it is true that this language is imperfect and liable to error but is much less so than would be expected[.] the strong parts of the ideas are seldom mistaken.” Lewis almost certainly overestimated the universality of the sign language his men were using, as scholars have identified at least five indigenous sign languages in what is now the United States. The most well-documented of these, Plains Indian Sign Language (PISL), itself has several different dialects.

George Drouillard, who was hired at the rate of $25 per month as an “Indian Interpreter,” was the Expedition’s most fluent signer and likely used one or multiple PISL dialects. At the time that Drouillard interpreted for the Expedition, it is estimated that there were tens of thousands of indigenous signers in what is now the United States. While it was likely used by deaf indigenous people, the majority of users were probably hearing and using sign as a common language to communicate across the barriers of verbal tongue and dialect.

Lewis & Clark National Historic Trail

Last updated: May 27, 2021