Watchlist: 'The hidden history of ‘Hand Talk’'

09.29.2022 Kamiah Koch Watchlist


By Kamiah Koch

Social media/digital journalist

Did you know that American Sign Language (ASL) is not the first signing language? In fact, one of the oldest languages and one of the main signing languages to influence ASL is a Native American signing language called “hand talk.”

The Vox series “Missing Chapter” shares Native stories you may not know. In the latest edition to the series published to its YouTube channel on May 16, 2022, Vox shares the history of Native American Sign Language and its many regional variations.

According to the video, hand talk was used as a main interTribal language that could be easily communicated between Tribes across the Americas by deaf and hearing people alike.     

The video interviews Melanie McKay-Cody, a Cherokee Nation West member and professor at the University of Arizona, as well as Lanny Real Bird from the Apsaalooke Nation, Arikara and Hidatsa. Both agree that hand talk was a means for commerce, economics, special ceremonies, rituals and storytelling.

The Vox video shows a map identifying the North American Indian Sign Language classifications by McKay-Cody. According to that map, Tribes in the area surrounding Grand Ronde would have spoken Northwest Indian Sign Language.

However, the video mainly focuses on the Plains Indian Sign Language (PISL), which Real Bird teaches.

PISL is described as being made up of 4,000 basic words that can be strung together. Real Bird demonstrates to sign the word “war” one would sign the word “big” and then sign the word “fight.” To say “beautiful,” one could sign “face” and “good.”

Although PISL and other hand talk languages were wildly used, we don’t see them communicated as much today due to residential schools’ efforts to exterminate Native languages, hand talk included.

The Vox video states there are only a few fluent PILS signers remaining.

McKay-Cody signs through the entire video, pointing out the ASL signs that were influenced by North American Indian Sign Language.

If you would like to see the words signed for yourself, you can watch the video at or find it linked under the “Watchlist” playlist on the Smoke Signals YouTube channel.