The Origins of Native Sign Language

As a culture, we often depict the lives of American Indians when they lived free on the land in movies and television. Have you ever noticed in those movies, when the Indian communicates, there seems to be a heavy emphasis on hand signals and sign language? And as the story unfolds, the “Indian guide” or the hero of the story who makes peace between the two peoples often does so using signs and body gestures which he then has to interpret for the audience.

Of course now that we are trying to be more culturally sensitive, we recognize that old time western movies got it wrong a lot about Native American life as it really was. In this effort not to use such stereotypes, its easy also to think that the sign language scenes we remembered were also just made up for the sake of the movie to make Indians look exotic and a little scary.

Forget Hollywood-Style Native Sign Language

It might be surprising to find out that some of the ways that Indians are portrayed in the movies has some basis in fact and that is true about how they communicated long before they had to talk to European peoples. Each Native American tribe that dwelt where our states now are had a very unique culture and language that were as distinct as the Germans are from the Chinese. Because the distances between where the tribes lived were relatively far off, the languages of the Native American tribes were distinct and often not understood between the tribes.

You may also know that the Indian tribes from our history were also a wandering people who did not have a set “city” but they roamed from place to place driven by weather and the availability of food. As such they often came in contact with other tribes and this contact was often friendly as these peoples often sought to help one another endure the difficult climate conditions of the North American plains.

Native Communication

The sign languages of the Native Americans were something that was developed at the time to help different tribes communicate more easily when that was needed. This “language” of sign was valuable for resolving disputes and cooperation in hunting or for giving each other trips to survive the winters. The leadership of the tribes also used signing to discuss and resolve land disputes and to avoid war when they could because that kind of conflict was not good for either tribe.

Scholars in Native American culture has also found out that this same sign language that was used to talk to other tribes had a lot of value in the every day life of a tribe member. There were many situations that talking out loud was not a good idea such as during the hunt or while doing some snooping on enemies and sign language was used to work together as teams to carry out those missions for the tribe.

Learning More about Native Culture

Learning about and thinking about how Native Americans lived before Europeans came along is educational and fun too. And it helps to understand the importance of sign language to leadership and the normal Indian man and woman because this tool helped them live healthier, more productive and peaceful lives.

And a great thing about learning more about how important communication methods were used by Native Americans is it makes you a more intelligent friend if you meet or already know someone from this culture. And any time we can understand other cultures more, it makes us better people too.

The Origins of Native Sign Language by James Beckett. About the author:  If you want to learn the American sign language alphabet then the best way is to take American sign language classes, find out more at

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