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Friends of the Plains Indians

Projects and Events


Browning, Montana, August 31-September 2, 2012

 An international conference to enjoy, describe, and document North American Indian sign language will be held in Browning, Montana, over Labor Day weekend, August 31-September 2, 2012. Everyone is invited, especially descendants of signers at the 1930 Plains Indian Sign Language Conference.

Sign Language has probably been used by human beings since they became fully aware, communicating people. It was undoubtedly used by the earliest inhabitants of the Americas, since those people were distributed among at least 15 genetic lineages and hundreds if not thousands of languages. American Indian people have never been isolated from each other, and they undoubtedly used sign language to communicate about food and tool resources, reliable environments in which to gather and hunt, newer and more effective tool shapes and aesthetically pleasing designs, how to deal with disease and accidents, and the recruitment of new partners.

Euroamericans interacting with Native North American people began documenting Indian sign language in the late 19th century. In 1930 General (ret.) Hugh Scott held a Congressionally authorized Plains Indian Sign Language Conference in Browning, Montana. Governor Joseph M. Doxon, Congressman Scott Leavitt, and Indian Agent P. C. Campbell were also at the Conference. Native participants in that conference included the following individuals.

Bird Rattler, Little Plume, Mountain Chief, Night Shoots, Richard Sanderville,
Jim White Calf, and Short Face (Amskapi Pikuni or Blackfoot Confederacy)
Bitterroot Jim (Sqeilo [Flathead)
Strange Owl (Tse’tsehestahese [Northern Cheyenne])

Assiniboine Boy (A’aniinen [Gros Ventre])

Rides Black Horse (Nakoda [Assiniboine])

Fine Young Man and Joe Big Plume (Tsuu T’ina [Sarcee])

Drags Wolf (Hidatsa)

Iron Whip (Sioux from Fort Peck Reservation)

Dick Washakie (Shoshone)

Deer Nose (Apsaalooke [Crow])

James Eagle (Arikara)

Foolish Woman (Mandan)

Tom White Horse (Arapahoe)

Footprints of the 1930 Conference participants were made in plaster and then cast in bronze; those footprints are set into a monument commemorating the 1930 Conference in front of the Museum of the Plains Indian in Browning.

In the 21st century, American Indian Sign Language is being documented and celebrated by Dr. Jeffrey E. Davis of the University of Tennessee-Knoxville in workshops, his Hand Talk: Sign Language among American Indian Nations book (Cambridge University Press, 2010; http://sunsite.utk.edu/pisl/), his website (pislresearch.com), and the American Indian Sign Language Conference being held in Browning, Montana, over Labor Day weekend, 2012.

The 2012 Conference is being co-hosted by the University of Tennessee-Knoxville, Friends of the Museum of the Plains Indian, and Blackfeet Community College with support from the Blackfeet Nation, Browning Area Chamber of Commerce, and a number of other individuals and organizations. The intent of the Conference is to both celebrate and continue the documentation of the language, and you are invited to participate.

The Conference schedule is still being refined and times and activities may vary.

Friday, August 31, at Blackfeet Community College

  • 1:30-4:30pm, registration for signers and translators
  • 5:00-6:30pm, Conference opening and perhaps a keynote speaker
  • 6:30-7:30pm, informal meal for registered conferees
  • 7:30-9pm, informal activities and conferee meet and greet

Saturday, September 1, in several locations

  • 8:30-9am, registration for signers and translators, Blackfeet Community College
  • 9:30-12pm, commemoration of 1930 Plains Indian Sign Language Conference, in front of the Museum of the Plains Indian
  • 12-1:30pm, lunch on one’s own
  • 1:30-4:30, tours of the Museum of the Plains Indian with signing tour leaders with translators, alternating with children’s activities in the Blackfeet Nation arbor and performances in front of the Museum by Jack and Mariah Gladstone and others
  • 6:30-9pm, open dinner and performances at the Blackfeet Nation Stick Game Building

Sunday, September 2, at Blackfeet Community College

  • 9am-12pm:, AISL presentations and discussions of dialectical differences among signers of different family and tribal heritage
  • 12-1:30pm, informal meal for registered conferees and other lunch on their own
  • 1:30-3pm, discussion of future studies and use of AISL, closing presentation and ceremony

We hope many people join us in this Conference, particularly descendants of signers at the 1930 Conference. American Indian Sign Language is very much a 21st century communication form, and needs to be used and celebrated!

 Final Conference Report

Go to http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y7IJjkB1ENY for a great Conference review!