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Native American sign language arrives at the Super Bowl

A signed performance of ‘America the Beautiful’ will feature Native American sign language, which thrived for centuries but is fading from collective memory

Dane Poolaw, 38, who is part of the Kiowa tribe in Oklahoma, demonstrates signs in Kiowa Sign Language, a dialect of Plains Indian Sign Language. (Video: The Washington Post)
9 min

Viewers who tune into the Super Bowl pregame show on Sunday will be treated to an unusual performance of “America the Beautiful,” which will be told, in part, through Native American sign language.

Colin Denny, a deaf Navajo man, will be using both American Sign Language (ASL) and Plains Indian Sign Language (PISL), which was once so common across the Great Plains that it was a “lingua franca,” a language used by both deaf and hearing people to communicate between tribes that didn’t share the same spoken language.

While the Native American community has long been at odds with the National Football League for its use of native iconography in team names and mascots, the presence of a Native American signer at the game appears to be unrelated to the league’s naming controversies or the participation of the Kansas City Chiefs at the event.

Instead, it was the National Association for the Deaf that picked Denny, a research assistant at the University of Arizona, to perform in this year’s Super Bowl in Arizona, which has one of the country’s largest Native American populations. Denny has worked with other Indigenous people as part of an effort to preserve and revive Native sign languages, which are at risk of being forgotten.

“I feel like you never see the indigenous community represented, but we are still here,” Denny signed in ASL. “We are still here but our language hasn’t been preserved everywhere. We have to preserve it at some point and we should start now.”

Denny said he couldn’t disclose details about which Native American signs he planned to showcase during the event.

But The Washington Post asked other experts to explain the similarities and differences between Native American sign languages and ASL. Dane Poolaw, 38, who is part of the Kiowa tribe in Oklahoma, agreed to demonstrate signs in Kiowa Sign Language, a dialect of PISL.


In ASL, the word “girl” evokes pulling the string of a bonnet around the chin, because that’s how European and White American girls dressed in the 1800s when ASL was becoming formalized as a language.

But bonnets were not worn by people in Native American tribes, so the sign doesn’t make sense within their cultural history or practices, said Melanie McKay-Cody, a deaf researcher at the University of Arizona who has been studying North American Indian Sign Language for three decades.

By contrast, in PISL, the word “girl” is signed by combining two signs: a sign that evokes longer hair for “female,” followed by a sign for “little.”

(Video: Amanda Morris, Alexa Juliana Ard/The Washington Post)

PISL is one of the most documented variations of North American Indian Sign Language, a collection of regional sign languages that thrived for centuries among both deaf and hearing people in North America before ASL was invented. But Native American sign languages were pushed to the verge of extinction by the forced assimilation in boarding schools and genocide of Indigenous people.

Poolaw teaches both Kiowa Sign Language and his tribe’s spoken language in his classes at the University of Oklahoma, where he is an instructor in the Department of Native American Studies. He says using the signs “adds more to spoken Kiowa.” “It adds more to who we are,” he said. There’s a little more feeling behind it.”


In ASL, the sign is near the mouth, which McKay-Cody believes is related to the fact that many people chew or smoke tobacco.

But in PISL the sign reflects the way many Indigenous people use the plant, which is to crush the leaves for use in ceremonies or as medicine. The PISL sign for “tobacco” evokes the crushing of the leaves.

(Video: Amanda Morris, Alexa Juliana Ard/The Washington Post)


In some cases, Native American signs are tied to customs that are no longer practiced, and can illustrate a tribe’s history in a way that ASL does not.

In ASL, one sign for “dog” is based on the finger spelling of the word. It repeats the letters “D” and “G,” making it look like a person is snapping for a dog’s attention.

But to say “dog” in Kiowa Sign Language, Poolaw uses two fingers in an upside down “V.” The sign represents two poles being dragged across the ground. Before the arrival of horses, his tribe relied on dogs to pull a travois, which is a sled-like frame used for carrying things.

(Video: Amanda Morris, Alexa Juliana Ard/The Washington Post)

‘Native American’

In ASL, one sign for “Native American” is a nod to the jewelry some Indigenous people wore, said McKay-Cody.

But, in PISL, the sign for “Native American” is similar to the sign used for the word “color” to indicate differences in skin color compared to White colonizers.

Poolaw said that if he hadn’t learned Kiowa Sign Language, he wouldn’t have been able to understand a video from 1932 in which his great, great grandfather signs the word “Native American.”

(Video: Amanda Morris, Alexa Juliana Ard/The Washington Post)


The earliest evidence that Indigenous tribes in North America were using sign language can be found in petroglyphs, or rock carvings, dating back to around 2,000 to 4,000 B.C., according to McKay-Cody.

The PISL sign for “hunger” involves slicing a straight line across the stomach with a flat hand. Poolaw recalls an elder explaining the sign to him by telling him that extreme hunger feels as though someone is putting a knife through your stomach, he said.

The petroglyph symbolizing “hunger” also shows a flat, straight line across someone’s stomach, suggesting that the symbol and the sign are linked.

The ASL sign for hunger involves cupping your hand and dragging it down your stomach.

(Video: Amanda Morris, Alexa Juliana Ard/The Washington Post)

‘Old’ or ‘elderly’

McKay-Cody estimates that the number of people fluent in various Native American sign languages is in the hundreds. Her mission has been to try to connect with elders who still remember their tribes’ sign languages to document the signs for future generations.

“We need to look up to our elders and ask them about their signs and get them to explain the reasons behind each sign so that we can pass it down,” she explained. “They are the knowledge carriers.”

In ASL, the sign for “old,” or “elderly,” is thought to derive from French Sign Language, and is supposed to evoke an elderly person sitting and resting their chin on their cane.

But in PISL, the sign for “elder,” shows someone walking with a long stick. It can also be used to talk about an “Elder,” a proper noun used to describe a respected person in the tribe who has a lot of tribal knowledge and serves the community.

(Video: Amanda Morris, Alexa Juliana Ard/The Washington Post)

‘Fry bread’

Some signs in North American Indian Sign Languages don’t exist at all in ASL, such as the names of various tribes or the names of some plants used in Native American ceremonies.

North American Indian Sign Languages have many ways to sign “fry bread,” most of which mimic the process of making it. In Kiowa Sign Language, the sign combines the word “grease,” with a sign that mimics patting a ball of fry bread dough.

But in ASL, to say “fry bread,” you need to spell the word “F-R-Y,” and then use a sign for “bread,” which mimics the slicing of a loaf a bread.

(Video: Amanda Morris, Alexa Juliana Ard/The Washington Post)


McKay-Cody and other experts believe that North American Indian Sign Languages had some influence on ASL, possibly through French fur trappers and other settlers who interacted with Native people and brought signs back to their communities. Many ASL signs are remarkably similar, or seemingly identical to signs found in North American Indian Sign Languages.

For example, the sign for “moon” in PISL imitates the shape of a crescent moon in the sky. The ASL sign for “moon” uses the same hand shape, but moves from the cheek forward.

(Video: Amanda Morris, Alexa Juliana Ard/The Washington Post)

Preserving Native American sign languages

McKay-Cody is working with eight different tribes to document their signs — but due to concerns over appropriation or misuse of the language, some tribes choose to keep their sign language private.

PISL often combines multiple signs, such as the words “river’ and “little” to say “stream,” and the words “land,” “water” and “around” to say “island.”

In ASL, pointing with the index finger is common, but in many Indigenous cultures, it’s considered rude. Instead, many North American Indian Sign Languages use thumbs or pouted lips to point to something or someone.

The sharp decline of many North American Indian Sign Languages corresponds with the rise of government-funded Native American boarding schools, which punished students for using either their spoken or signed Native languages. These schools operated between the 1860s and the 1960s.

“We lost a lot in a very quick amount of time,” Poolaw said.

Hallie Zimmerman, a deaf woman who is part of both the Winnebago and the Omaha Nations in Nebraska, said she remembers seeing her maternal grandfather use basic signs, but only rarely. Like many others, he was forced to go to a Native American boarding school. While the Winnebago spoken language survived, it’s not clear whether its sign language did. So far, it hasn’t been documented.

Zimmerman is a co-founder of Turtle Island Hand Talk, which connects deaf and hearing Indigenous people to share cultural knowledge. “I want to reclaim Plains Indian Sign Language and keep passing it to other generations,” she said. “I think it’s a beautiful language that helps us communicate and connect with other tribes.”

McKay-Cody said North American Indian Sign Language is often not credited for the role it played in shaping ASL, and has not been recognized by many as a language in its own right.

By using it in his Super Bowl performance, Denny, the deaf Navajo signer, hopes to change that and inspire more young Indigenous people to learn North American Indian Sign Language.

“We’ve been here for many years,” he said. “I want to empower the signers in our tribal communities, and give them the opportunity to share their language.”

In the videos, Dane Poolaw, a member of the Kiowa tribe in Oklahoma, demonstrates a dialect of Plains Indian Sign Language. Amanda Morris, a Washington Post reporter, demonstrates ASL.

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