In 2007 I first published a blog questioning whether the "forced" use of ASL and the adoption of American deaf culture had some impact on deaf Indians their use of their own native Indian Sign Language (ISL) causing ISL to fall out to disuse like the Keresan Pueblo Indian Sign Language (KPISL) and ultimately having them removed from their own Indian culture and customs once they were placed in deaf residential schools.
Keresan Pueblo Indian Sign Language (KPISL) is a means of communication developed and used among many of the residents of this one New Mexico pueblo. It is one of many North American Indian sign languages found in the United States, and one of two in Southwestern United States that have been studied and documented—the other being Navajo (Davis & Suppala, 1995). A literature review suggests that signed languages were also used among Apaches and Hopis (West, 1960). KPISL is believed to have developed on one pueblo by family members in order to communicate with their offspring, siblings, and relatives who were deaf (Kelley, 2001). It is not at all uncommon for deaf children and their family members to invent a home-based sign system for such a purpose. However, KPISL does not fit the framework for home-based sign systems set forth by researchers such as Frishberg (1987) who states that home signs do not have a consistent meaning-symbol relationship, do not pass on from generation to generation, are not shared by one large group, and are not considered the same over a community of signers. KPISL was passed on from one family’s eldest brothers and sisters to their hearing and deaf siblings, nephews, and nieces. KPISL is also used among non-family members living on the pueblo. It has been found to function in two significant ways: (a) as an alternative to spoken language for hearing tribal members and (b) as a primary or first language for deaf tribal members.For the KPISL it was considered a first language for deaf Pueblo tribal members. But the sad irony as I have pointed out several times in my blogs concerning the topic of ISL is that the adoptive use of ASL and the adoption of an American deaf culture helped cause the disuse of the KPISL among deaf Indians. Not necessarily the primary cause but certainly bears some culpability. This is especially true with English and its American customs and culture helping along the demise of KPISL/ISL. However, deaf schools of the past and recent past never made any attempt to help accommodate or preserve KPISL or ISL among deaf Indians attending deaf schools. Instead they were inducted and indoctrinated into the "Deaf World" and its American deaf customs using ASL. In the end after graduation they were forced to choose between ISL or ASL.
Both KPISL and PISL have become endangered languages. KPISL is not much used among the pueblo’s younger generation owing to their learning school English, ASL, or signs that follow the spoken English word order. Before the 1990s, American Indian Deaf/Hard-of-Hearing tribal members usually left home to attend a residential school for the deaf located far away (Baker, 1997; Lane, Hoffmeister, & Bahan, 1996). At the school, there was usually no formal instruction of American Indian or American Indian culture and signs; only Deaf culture and ASL were taught, leading many American Indian students to join the “Deaf World.” After graduation, the students had to make difficult decisions about where and how to establish themselves: on the pueblos with hearing families and friends, in urban areas with other Deaf/Hard-of-Hearing people, or in border towns with limited access to both groups.The extinction of a language happens when they fall out of disuse because of a dominant language and culture:
If a language (spoken or otherwise) is not utilized or passed down from one generation to the next, then the devastating result would be language extinction. Accompanying the loss of a native language is the loss of the traditions, culture, and perhaps even a loss of life. Language extinction, also referred to as total language death, is defined as occurring, “when there are no speakers of a given language idiom remaining in a population where the idiom was previously used (i.e. when all native speakers die). Language death may affect any language idiom, including (so-called) dialects and languages.”The death(?) of KPISL and its culture is an example of how a language failed due to the lack of it being maintained and passed on down to the next generation of KPISL users. Deaf Indians using KPISL went to deaf schools who were forced to adopt ASL and its American deaf culture which led to the lack of maintenance of their own ISL and culture that spanned generations in their own tribe.
During a study conducted in the Spring 2000 by the University of Texas at Austin, a previously undiscovered form of sign language was uncovered. Walter Kelley and Tony McGregor, two doctoral candidates from the University write, “The signs, Keresan Pueblo Indian Sign Language (KPISL), are used by some of the pueblo’s Deaf/Hard-of-Hearing individuals. This newly discovered language, an idiosyncratic home sign language, was developed perhaps by family members in order to communicate with their offspring, siblings and relatives who have a hearing loss. The signs appear to have evolved in the same way as spoken language, progressing gradually from the representational to the symbolic, from the picture to the symbol, but still remaining primarily representational or ideographic (Frishberg, 1987). Today, many individuals in the pueblo use it while communicating with others inside the small village” (Kelley,1998). However, the potential for collision with ASL lies in the fact that without regular usage or due to the integration of American ASL in schools, KPISL is now becoming a dying language. Kelley and McGregor go on to reveal, “Unfortunately, the signs are not used among the younger Pueblo Indian generation due to their learning in school American Sign Language (ASL) used by American Deaf individuals or Seeing Exact English 2 (SEE 2), a methodology of using signs following the spoken English word order. In addition, KPISL was used at a nearby pueblo but it is no longer seen” (Kelley, 1998).So, in retrospect some of those deaf schools that use ASL were responsible in more ways than one for the inevitable language death of deaf Indians' ISL, in this case KPISL.
The purpose and use of KPISL were different than that of the PISL.
KPISL didn’t originate for the same purposes as the well known Plains Indian Sign Language (PISL), which was primarily developed to facilitate intertribal communication between the American Indian tribes that spoke different languages in the Plains region of the present United States and Canada—a region extending from what is now the state of Texas northward to Canada and, at its widest point, stretching from Arizona through Oklahoma (Taylor, 1978). Signs were used during hunting and trading among the different tribes and were also used for storytelling and a variety of ceremonies. Plains tribes known to use signed language included the Cheyenne, Comanche, Kiowa, and Sioux. Signed languages were also used as a means of communication by the Iroquois in the state of New York, the Cherokee in the Southeastern United States, the Eskimos in Alaska, and the Mayan in Mexico (Johnson, 1994; Scott, 1931; West, 1960).The question now lies on how many deaf Indians with their own ISL who were indoctrinated into deaf schools forced to learn another language (ASL) and American deaf customs, culture and language (English) and forgo or diminish their own Indian Sign Language, custom and culture? Much the same way when thousands of hearing Lakota Indian children who were forced into American schools at boarding houses to learn and adopt American customs, language and culture.
They were not tall, muscular braves, armed with bows and tomahawks that emerged from this train. Instead, what greeted the crowd were frightened children wrapped in blankets. They were tired, cold, and frightened by the crowd of strange white people that stared at them. There were eighty two boys and girls that arrived at Carlisle that night.NAD (National Association of the Deaf) was established in 1880 in support of using ASL and had a huge role and influence to help incorporate ASL in deaf schools since its inception. The irony is that during those years when deaf schools incorporated ASL, deaf Indians were indoctrinated into their deaf culture, ASL and American way of life (English language, customs and culture) at deaf residential schools at the expense of their own native sign language, customs and culture. Just like the deaf Keresan Pueblo Indians. This is the equivalent of hearing Indian children of the past being sent to American boarding schools to learn another language (English), American customs and culture at the expense of losing their own native language, customs and culture. But the scale and impact of this among deaf Indians going to deaf residential schools are unknown. Certainly not at the scale and breadth like the Carlisle Indian Industrial School for hearing Indian children who were forcibly placed into. And that it was the English language and western (American) culture that ultimately put their own native Indian language and culture at risk.
These were the first of many Indian students that would learn how to be “civilized” at the Carlisle Indian Industrial School. What these students didn’t know was that they were about to have a burden placed upon them. Aside from trying to learn a new language and culture, they would be tasked with bringing everything they learned back to their reservations and teaching their people the White Man's ways. In order to do this, the instructors at Carlisle used gender, in particular the females, to "civilize" the Indians.
Many deaf Indian children were sent to deaf residential schools just as many hearing Indian children were sent to Indian residential schools.
Since the late 1800s, social, cultural and historical factors have caused the number of native users of traditional American Indian sign language to dramatically decrease along with the decline of native languages and cultures, came the loss of signed language that was once a widely used alternate to spoken language, and a traditional way of storytelling. The role of a signed lingua franca has been replaced by English, which means that fewer hearing Indians are learning the traditional ways of signing. The decline of sign language among native groups also contributes to the marginalization and isolation of tribal members who are Deaf (see Goff-Paris & Wood 2002 and Miller 2004 to read more about the experiences of Native American Indians who are Deaf) (page 51).
By the turn of the 20th century, however, a dramatic decline in sign language use among native groups was evident, largely due to its replacement by English as a lingua franca. The documentary evidence suggests that the use of a signed lingua franca continued well into the early 20th century. However, during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in the United States and Canada (mainly in Northwestern and Southwestern regions) residential Indian schools were established by state, provincial, and federal governments; and by religious organizations in some cases. It become common practice for Indian children and adolescents to be systematically removed from their families and placed in these residential educational institutions. The official educational policy during this period was "cultural and linguistic assimilation." This translated into loss of many native ways, including the loss of native language and culture for many Indian children. Indian children were taught English only and in most cases were forbidden to follow or practice their cultural traditions (page 60).Similarities do exist between many deaf Indian children who had their culture and their own language (e.g KPISL/ISL) who were sent off to deaf residential schools to learn a new language (ASL and English) and culture (American culture) to that of hearing Indian children who already had their own culture and own Indian language who were forcibly sent off to Indian schools to learn another language (English) and adopt American culture and customs. Just like the before and after picture seen above of a hearing Indian boy.
All this brings me to a recent blog I did on why NAD and other deaf schools have not apologized for helping with some of the eradication of deaf Indians' own ISL when deaf Indian children were forced to choose their language and culture and with no effort to help them preserve and maintain their own ISL identity and culture. And most importantly I also already asked whether an apology is really necessary despite the fact that we will never know the full impact on the placement of deaf Indian children in deaf residential schools that use ASL have had on their ISL and culture. We may never know on how many similar tribes like the Keresan Pueblo who had their deaf Indians lose their native sign language and part of their culture to ASL and American culture and customs at deaf residential schools of time's past. For all intent and purposes the KPISL could be technically extinct at this time until further research can ascertain that KPISL is still alive and that deaf KP Indians are still using it.
Accountability goes both ways, folks.