Learning the SIgns

Many of the PISL signs are obvious, such as an index finger pointing upwards to indicate “Up”. Another, for “Come here”, would be familiar to any child about to be scolded by their mother. While in other cases rote memorization is necessary. And many of the signs are ambiguous enough to lend themselves to many interpretations. Author William Tomkins in his book, INDIAN SIGN LANGUAGE, gives generous examples of the fluid nature of these signs as they adapt to a situation. His example for “Private talk” would be a discrete way of signalling to someone that they’d like a private talk with them. These signs can be as modern in application as anyone would wish. As useful in this 21st Century as they were in the 14th Century.

Plains Hand Talk
"The beauty of Sign talk depends upon the manner of making the gestures. Movements should not be angular or jerky, but should rather be rounded and sweeping in their rendition. It is inspiring, and a thing of beauty, to witness a sign conversation between two capableIndian sign talkers. They are living in many parts of our country and should be cultivated wherever found.Every sign in this work is a true Indian sign. Nothing has been borrowed from the deaf or from other sources, the compiler having adhered strictly to Indian origins. This, of necessity, makes for a briefer book than would otherwise be possible, but a conscientious effort has been made to make the book exactly what it purports to be: the Indian Sign Language."

- Author, William Tomkins
Download Book

ABout the project

In 2019, Eastern Shoshone elder and Wyoming Humanities board member, Willie LeClair, proposed a project to record him using hand talk to preserve its use and contemporary format and present it in a way that would encourage people of all ages to try to learn to use it. With every passing year, Willie found fewer and fewer people who could communicate with him using Plains Indian Sign Language (PISL or “hand talk”) a once prevalent but now very endangered language. Wyoming Humanities acknowledges that the land that we serve is the native homeland of people who used hand talk and we are proud to invest in this important preservation and education effort.

When we started this project, we found a website, PlainsIndianSignLanguage.com, based on William Tomkins’ book Universal American Indian Sign Language, a book that has been the definitive teaching guide for sign language since it was published in 1926. When we contacted the website owner, Mr. John Lapham, he shared that his interest in PISL came about because he was beginning to have hearing problems and after taking an exploratory American Sign Language (ASL) course with his wife, he looked into PISL because ASL takes years to learn and “all I needed was some simple hand signals to spare my wife from shouting at me in public in order to make herself heard by me.” Mr. Lapham has generously donated his work to create a poster of the hand signs in Tomkins’ book as well as a pdf version of the book which is now in the public domain.

Our PISL project seeks to introduce people to Plains Indian Sign Language and share some of what we know about it today so people will always have a way to explore and learn this simple, elegant, and powerful language.

History & Research

Before Europeans came to the Americas, there were hundreds of different tribes, each with its own cultural features including language. When speakers of one language met those of another, they communicated in what has become known as “hand talk.” Scholars dispute exactly when, in the 30,000 or more years of history in North America, tribes developed sign language. It was observed among Florida tribes by 16th Century Spanish colonizers when Coronado documented in his journals in 1540 that as he met the Comanche peoples in present-day Texas the Comanches made themselves so well-understood with the use of sign talk that there was almost no need for an interpreter.

Because there were fewer distinct linguistic groups among the tribes living in permanent villages in the wooded lands east of the Mississippi River, they didn’t use sign language as much as it was used among the more nomadic and linguistically diverse tribes of the west, particularly the Great Plains Indian Nations. It became a primary vehicle for communication as Europeans came farther west.

In 1930, the Blackfeet Nation of Montana hosted a three-day council organized by Hugh L. Scott, a 77-year-old U.S. Army General who spent a good portion of his career in the American West where he observed and learned Hand Talk. The historic “Indian Sign Language Grand Council” gathered leaders of a dozen North American Indian Nations and language groups. With $5,000 in federal funding, Scott filmed the proceedings and hoped to produce a film dictionary of more than 1,300 signs but he died before he could finish the project. The films were recently discovered in the Library of Congress.

A decade and half later, Tim McCoy, one of the great stars of early American Western films and eventual expert on American Indian life and customs, made a video in 1946 on the Blackfeet Reservation in Montana titled “Injun Talk.” McCoy was a hand talker and was well respected and loved by Native Americans of various tribes. In 1978, prior to his death, he and his son Terry produced a film called "The Silent Language of the Plains" where McCoy demonstrates nearly 1000 signs as well as intermittently tells stories of Montana and Wyoming history and the Indian Tribes of those regions. This film is currently out of print. When Indian children were removed from their families and sent to government-run boarding schools they were forbidden to speak their own languages, including Hand Talk, and even deaf Indian children were forced to use American Sign Language rather than the sign language of their own people. Like so much of American Indian culture, Hand Talk is endangered, and the number of signers is rapidly dwindling.

additional resources

WATCH: Indian Sign Language Council of 1930,
(Dick Washakie is featured

WATCH: Arapaho, Injun Talk
(film featuring Tim McCoy explains sign language among Plains Indians, 1946 )

WATCH: Native American Hand Talkers Fight to Keep Sign Language Alive

"Talking Without Words in the Old West" (2009) – The Montana Experience
(Directed by Sally Thompson - Before Euro-American settlement of the West, a sophisticated system of non-verbal communication allowed for intricate relationships between the many tribes of the Great Plains. This illuminating account of the complex communication systems is told by Native Americans from the various tribes who developed and used the languages.)

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