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Sign Language from Another People, Another Time

Mar 23, 2008
We probably have a lot of wrong information in our heads about how American Indians actually lived from the movies and TV. One thing that stands out of you watch a "western" is usually when an Indian shows up in a scene, he or she communicates to the other characters in a form of sign language and there is always an "Indian guide" or trapper who understands what was said and lets us in on it.

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.

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.

Another fact we know about the majority of Native American tribes is that they didn't very often stay in the same place year after year like we do now. They moved around to follow good hunting or to get away from bad weather, disease or other dangers to the tribe. And this nomadic behavior often brought different tribes in contact with each other. Contrary to what "the westerns" would have us believe, however, many times different tribes tried to work together and were not hostile as they tried to share important information that could be a big help to another tribe trying to get by in a sometimes hostile environment.

The need for occasional communication across tribes is one reason that Native American sign language came into being because signing made it possible to interact with members of other tribes on these infrequent meetings. Signing was very helpful as the chiefs and leaders of the tribe talked through conflicts and negotiated so the tribes could live near each other in peace. It is possible that many times when tribes could communicate, it avoided war and gave different peoples the ability to help each other and so keep the culture alive from year to year.

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 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 along with learning these details of Native American life out of our own fascination with another time and people, it's a good thing to learn all we can about other cultures because we so often come in contact with people with Native American lineage. And the more you know about the history of the peoples who are our fellow citizens, the more we can appreciate and enjoy the diversity that surrounds us.
About the Author
The American sign language alphabet is easier to learn than you think, if you are looking for information on this or anything else to do with ASL then head over to American sign language online today.
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