Indigenous sign languages once used to help nations communicate still being used today

American Sign Language is the most widely used sign language for those who are hearing impaired or deaf, but Indigenous people used sign languages long before the development of ASL.
Martin Heavy Head Jr. grew up using Plains Indian Sign Language, an Indigenous sign language that some say became the base for American Sign Language. (submitted/ Martin Heavy Head Jr.)

American Sign Language is the most widely used sign language for those who are hearing impaired or deaf, but Indigenous people used sign languages long before the development of ASL. 

There's Plateau Sign Language, which is used on the West coast by nations such as the Salish, Inuit Sign Language and Plains Indian Sign Language.

Martin Heavy Head Jr. is a member of the Blood Tribe of the Blackfoot Confederacy in Alberta, and he grew up speaking Plains Indian Sign Language, though he is not deaf.

"Generally speaking, people didn't understand one another's languages, so there had to be a universal language among the Plains Indians," Heavy Head said.

Historically, Plains Indian Sign Language was used by the Crow, Cree, Gros Ventre and Sioux, among other plains nations as a way to communicate with one another when there was no one to translate when the nations came together.

"When we were going to be making a treaty... it was the language that was used because we didn't fully understand each other's languages, but everybody spoke Plains Indian Sign Language," Heavy Head said.

"That does make me a little sad..."

Heavy Head said Plains Indian Sign Language is still used today, though there is concern that American Sign Language may replace it, as English has for many Indigenous languages.

"That does make me a little sad, but at the same time, not, because it's still being spoken along with Blackfoot and English today," Heavy Head said. "I don't think to the full extent that it could be used, but people still use a lot of the hand signals today, especially in greetings."

He said he doesn't know of any deaf person in his community who exclusively uses the sign language to communicate anymore, but has hearing impaired family members who use American Sign Language.

Learning the sign language came "second nature"

Heavy Head said that because verbal language is typically spoken in tandem with Plains Indian Sign Language, learning it for him came as a second nature growing up in his community of Kainai First Nation.

"When you're immersed in the culture, it's being absorbed, sort of second nature," Heavy Head said. "It wasn't an imposition or extra effort. It's just something that happened along with being around my people."

Heavy Head said he remembers his great uncle George Heavy Head (Tsotsi) and George Day Rider, two elders of his community that grew up deaf and have since passed away, exclusively used Plains Indian Sign Language to speak. They were who he mostly used the sign language with.

Heavy Head recalled growing up in the plains going to haul water, hunt and visit elders with his father.

Martin Heavy Head said growing up in Kainai First Nation, many older people spoke with their hands, Plains Indian Sign Language came to him as a "second nature." (submitted/ Brad Gadd)

"And as they spoke, they would be speaking Blackfoot, but they'd also be using sign language at the same time," Heavy Head said. "It's just sort of second nature to a lot of older people as they spoke and even today to create emphasis, one on telling a story people will still use, and signs to really get the point across."

Heavy Head said he speaks a bit of his native Blackfoot language, though isn't as fluent as he would like to be.

"There's quite a bit that I understand and there's a lot more that I want to understand, but it's really tough because both of my parents had gone to residential school," Heavy Head said. "Because they went to residential school it was literally beaten into them to learn English, so to save us from that experience, they decided it would be best to teach us English first."

Heavy Head said that the sign language is useful for times when speaking to one another isn't easy, such as in a crowd or ceremony setting.

"Maybe we'll be at a ceremony and my dad's on the other side of the room, and I can't just talk to him. Then I'll have to make some hand signs so he understands what I'm saying," Heavy Head said. "Or even when I want to be discreet like I want to borrow 20 bucks from my mom."

Heavy Head said that his favourite sign in Indian Plains Sign Language is for "baby buffalo."

"You put your fist to the side of your head at your temple and raise your thumb ... and then wiggle them."

This segment was produced by Stephanie Cram