Indigenous sign languages in Canada

The linguistic and cultural heritage of First Nations and Inuit includes several sign languages. The most famous, Plains Sign Language (PSL), is still known by a few Dakota, Cree, Blackfoot, and others in Canada—some deaf, and others hearing, who use it to accompany their oral narratives. PSL was apparently developed by deaf individuals and their families on the Great Plains, and its use spread as a lingua franca as far South as the Rio Grande in Mexico and as far north as the North Saskatchewan River in Canada (Davis 2015 and references therein). As Ernest Seton described in his 1918 textbook, Sign Talk (p. v):

My attention was first directed to the Sign Language in 1882 when I went to live in Western Manitoba. There I found it used among the various Indian tribes as a common language, whenever they were unable to understand each other’s speech. In later years I found it a daily necessity when traveling among the natives of New Mexico and Montana.

Though most of its signers have been hearing, PSL has always served as a full-fledged, primary language to Deaf Plains people. For instance, Seton (cited above) learned PSL from White Swan (a.k.a. Strikes Enemy), a famed Deaf Crow: ‘I was glad to be his pupil, and thus in 1897 began seriously to study the Sign Language’ (ib.). Below is Seton’s 1897 portrait of White Swan.

White Swan

A report in the same year by John Maclean, an Indian agent among the Blackfoot in Alberta, described how three young Deaf Piikáni (Peigan) conversed in PSL with each other, as well as with their hearing friends and family members. Maclean also described how they conversed with a Deaf visitor from the Kainai (Blood) Nation, named Kotonáaikoan (so he may have been Ktunaxa), who shared his warrior stories in PSL ‘for hours’ (McKay-Cody 1996: 23).

A different sign language was indigenous to the Northwest Plateau, including Central and Southeastern British Columbia (cf. Davis 2015: 920). Like its Plains counterpart, Plateau Sign Language was a mother tongue to Deaf people and it was used more widely as a lingua franca by Salish, Sahaptian, Ktunaxa and other Plateau peoples. Plateau Sign Language was eventually replaced by Plains Sign Language, and as a trade jargon, by Chinook Jargon, a newer spoken lingua franca of the Pacific Northwest. Today, Plateau Sign Language is only partially known by one or two hearing elders in Montana, such as Francis Auld (Ksanka/Ktunaxa).

A third signed language in Canada is Inuit Sign Language (abbreviated IUR, from Inuktitut Inuit Uukturausingit (ᐆᒃᑐᕋᐅᓯᖏᑦ); MacDougall 2001). Though its linguistic documentation is only recent (Schuit 2015 and references therein), IUR has been in use for centuries among the Inuit, the Indigenous people of the Canadian Arctic. It is currently a mother tongue to fewer than 40 Deaf Inuit who are widely dispersed across Nunavut, the newest, largest and most northerly territory in Canada, where congenital deafness happens to be relatively frequent. The language is also known by perhaps 80 hearing Inuit (Schuit 2012). Its future prospects are dim, as American Sign Language (ASL) and la Langue des Signes Quebecoise (LSQ) have become the primary sign languages of Deaf Inuit.


Davis, Jeffrey. 2015. ‘North American Indian Sign Language’, in Julie Bakken Jepsen, Goedele De Clerck, Sam Lutalo-Kiingi and William B. McGregor (eds), Sign Languages of the World: A Comparative Handbook, pp. 911–932. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.

MacDougall, James. 2001. ‘Access to Justice for Deaf Inuit in Nunavut: The Role of Inuit Sign Language’. Canadian Psychology/Psychologie canadienne, 42(1): 61–73.

McKay-Cody, Melanie. 1996. ‘Plains Indian Sign Language: A Comparative Study of Alternate and Primary Signers’. Unpublished MA thesis, University of Arizona.

Schuit, Joke. 2012. ‘Signing in the Arctic: External Influences on Inuit Sign Language’, in Ulrike Zeshan, Connie de Vos and Marie Coppola (eds), Sign Languages in Village Communities: Anthropological and Linguistic Insights, pp. 181–208. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.

Schuit, Joke. 2015. ‘Inuit Sign Language’, in Julie Bakken Jepsen, Goedele De Clerck, Sam Lutalo-Kiingi and William B. McGregor (eds), Sign Languages of the World: A Comparative Handbook, pp. 431–448. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.

Seton, Ernest Thompson. 1918. Sign Talk: A Universal Signal Code, without Apparatus, for Use in the Army, the Navy, Camping, Hunting, and Daily Life. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, Page & Company.


[August 16, 2017]