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Sign Languages: A Forgotten Part of Tribal Cultures

Given the traumatic history of federal Indian boarding schools most Deaf Natives understand that tribal communities would be reluctant to send their children to a residential boarding school for the Deaf.

Deaf First Peoples are viewing a recent Indian Country Today Media Network article with contempt as the article promotes a nocuous paradigm called auditory verbal training, sometimes disguised in pedagogic claims of enhancing speech and listening skills, and also known as “oralism.”

Campaigns against sign languages in the later portion of the 19th and early 20th centuries had eugenic, eudemic, and euthenic origins (social evolutionary thought). At the epicenter of those campaigns was the famous inventor Alexander Graham Bell. Critical examination of his writings reveals a focus on coerced cultural, structural, and marital assimilation. Why is ICTMN encouraging Indian country to buy into Anglo conformity for Deaf First Peoples?


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Theories used to rationalize a genocide in First Peoples were also aimed at Sign Language Peoples. The suppression of tribal languages was a key part of the curriculum waged against First Peoples. For Sign Language Peoples this was different. Although federal Indian schools and Deaf schools have their own histories, eugenicists like Bell sought to suppress tribal languages and sign languages. The suppression of tribal language and sign languages intersect one another with the use of Keep’s manual at Carlisle Indian School. The manual was originally designed to suppress sign language and then incorporated at Carlisle to suppress tribal languages.

Given the traumatic history of federal Indian boarding schools most Deaf Natives understand that tribal communities would be reluctant to send their children to a residential boarding school for the Deaf. Forcing Native parents to send their children to residential schools for the Deaf is inexcusable. At the same time, most Deaf First Peoples I know would argue that mainstream public schools in modern times are far worse than a Deaf boarding school experience in modern times because mainstreaming promotes linguistic deprivation and social isolation in reservation communities. With the ascendance of biomedical capitalism in the 21st century, the medical experthood claims that without their technology Native Deaf children will grow up to be illiterate or so distant from reservations that tribal cultural practices will not be learned. NONSENSE!

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I’d like to offer some not so radical suggestions so that tribes can assist parents in making truly informed decisions for our children. Natives who are schooled in statistics—we need you to scrutinize the claims made by biomedical industries. Native social scientists and educators—we need you to critically examine the operational definitions used by those same industries. For example, the idea of experience some benefit in telephone use with a cochlear implant is an interesting claim. BUT what exactly does some benefit mean? Is that simply knowing the phone rang? With lights flashing Deaf Natives already know when the phone rings.

My point is that I would encourage tribes and parents to be skeptical of the illusion of inclusion that the biomedical industries promote. I would encourage tribes and parents to look to see if the same industries and experts advocating cochlear implants for Native children are not part of the same biomedical industries who have anti-Indian roots? Do you want to trust those whose existence is founded upon social evolutionary ideologies? Why not trust that Deaf Natives know more about attending Deaf schools than anyone else in tribal communities, certainly more that audiologists, speech pathologists, and surgeons? Why not listen to Deaf Native perspectives about mainstreaming versus residential schools? Deaf Natives have much to offer tribal communities—if you allow us to pursue our goal of recovering intertribal sign languages that were colonized by English speaking peoples. When you de-value sign language you devalue tribal heritage. WHY?

The Spanish explorer Cabeza De Vaca observed indigenous populations in the early 16th century using sign language as an intertribal language, a highly valued language of intertribal diplomacy. A system of sign language showed up in Spain and later France shortly thereafter, and was later exported to America under the auspices of European invention.

The evidence is thin, but we do know that tribal delegations and Deaf students in Washington, D.C. were observed communicating with each other—in sign language around 1880 (Mallery 1881), narratives describing tribal sign languages west of the Mississippi being understood by Deaf students in the New York School for the Deaf in 1823 (Ackerly 1824), and there are even early 20th century films of elders communicating in sign language.

While it is difficult to know precisely how much of American Sign Language in contemporary times has roots in tribal sign languages, it can be stated that sign language is a desirable, viable, and achievable alternative, bringing Deaf First Peoples closer to an indigenous ontology than spoken English ever can. No one wants to stomp on parental rights to choose what they think is best for their child. Yet, parents are seldom informed of the rich connection between sign language and tribal culture. Why?

Richard Clark Eckert is a member of the Bad River Band of Lake Superior Ojibwe. He received his doctorate degree from the University of Michigan in 2005. His forthcoming book “American Sign Language Peoples & Civil Society” expands on many of the themes presented in this essay.

The story was originally published on Aug 29, 2014.