What’s in a Name? Be Careful in Using PISL

Our previous post was about people using Plains Indian Sign Language after learning it from books and videos. At least one of these signers, Ron Garitson, was considered fluent by modern native Cheyenne PISL signers at the 2010 Plains Indian Sign Language Conference. Ron had practiced his PISL with modern native Crow signers, native Assiniboine signers, and others for decades, so he is by no means an amateur. However, a new article from Ted Stillwell – an old radio host – explains when an amateur incorrectly uses or translates a Native sign language they ofter butcher names and tales. For instance, a French missionary mistranslated at least two tribal names:

Upper-Forest Sitters as Great Osage or Big Osage

Down-Below People as Little Osage

In other words, the sign language size indicators BIG and LITTLE were confused with the slightly similar yet not identical proximity indicators UPPER and LOWER.

According to a Quapaw chief, these mistranslation caused a political rift to form between these two Osage bands, which led the lower band to break off and become known as the Quapaw, because that band resented their new association with small stature.

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About The Author



One Response to “What’s in a Name? Be Careful in Using PISL”

  1. Ron Garritson says:

    I first began learning the Plains Indian Sign Language from my Crow friends, relatives and elders back in the mid 1970′s. I was so intrigued with the hand talk that I could not get enough of it so I began my research from books written in the late 1800′s early 1900′s by those who had learned it from the various Plains Tribes. Coming into possession of the 1930′s Plains Indian Sign Language
    conference has help grealty in my work in preserving this most vital form of communication. True there are people like the early French traders and missionaries who had misinterpreted signs referring to tribal names, such as the sign for the Gros Ventre and Shoshone. I have been very careful in this aspect as to not only enquire of these nations the accurate name of their people, but to the proper syntax with which to sign the name. Much work needs to be done to preserve the hand talk and keep it alive for future generations, of which I will continue as long as my hands can move.
    Ron Garritson
    Billings, Montana

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