BILLINGS — Loretha (Rising Sun) Grinsell is fluent in a language few people understand, a language without spoken words.
Grinsell, who is deaf, grew up on the Northern Cheyenne Reservation using Plains Indian sign language to communicate with her foster grandmother.
She relied exclusively on “hand talk” until she went to school at age 9 and learned the more commonly used American Sign Language.
She uses the Plains Indian signs, interspersed with ASL, to communicate with her cousin, James Wooden Legs, who became deaf from a fever during a bout with spinal meningitis as an infant. Like Grinsell, Wooden Legs learned Plains Indian sign language before he went off to the school.
Today, Grinsell knows about 10 sign-talkers in the Northern Cheyenne Tribe who are fluent and another 20 who can communicate on a basic level using sign language.
Along the Great Plains of North America, stretching from Canada into Mexico, Plains Indian sign language was once the lingua franca, the common language among tribes speaking at least 40 different languages.
As a common language, hand-talk was used to negotiate tribal alliances and form trading partnerships. Within tribal groups, elders used it for storytelling and rituals, as an alternative to the spoken language.
Now Plains Indian sign language is recognized as an endangered language, like many spoken tribal languages.
This week, fluent sign-talkers from tribes across Montana and surrounding states are gathering on the Northern Cheyenne Reservation for the first Plains Indian sign language conference in 80 years.
As fluent tribal elders and members of the deaf community use the signs during the conference, linguists will study it, record it and preserve it for future generations. Participants of the four-day conference, which continues through the weekend, will camp on private land at Busby.
The structure and grammar of sign language must have evolved over hundreds of years, said Jeffery Davis, a linguist and professor at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville, who is a co-leader of the project.
After 15 years of doing research comparing Plains Indian sign language to American Sign Language, Davis is convinced that much of American Sign Language came from the Indian hand talk.
When a language is lost, it contributes to the loss of cultural identity.
“Half of the native languages in North America have vanished,” Davis said. “There used to be 200 or more. Now, there are like a hundred, and most of those struggle to survive.”
The conference, which is funded by the National Science Foundation, began with field work last summer in Montana to search for fluent Plains Indian sign-talkers.
Davis, along with the project’s co-leader, Melanie McKay-Cody, a Chickamauga Cherokee/Choctaw from William Woods University in Missouri, identified more than two dozen sign-talkers among the various tribes. The group includes several tribal members who are deaf.
“Being able to carry on a fluent conversation, you’re running pretty short on who can do it,” said Ron Garritson of Billings, who helped with the area fieldwork.
“Most were either deaf or had grandparents who were deaf, and they learned the sign talk that way,” said Garritson, a sign-talker who has been giving presentations on Plains Indian sign language to school groups and museums since 2005.
On the Crow Reservation, Garritson knows four or five tribal members who are fluent in sign language and about as many on the Northern Cheyenne Reservation.
“We went up to Fort Belknap last year to interview elders. We ran into only one who knows it fluently,” Garritson said.
Wooden Legs, who grew up in Lame Deer on the Northern Cheyenne Reservation, has helped Davis with his research for many years.
By bringing together the most fluent sign-talkers in Busby, the team will re-create some of the experiences of a similar conference gathering in 1930. At that sign language gathering, chiefs and elders from a dozen Indian nations were filmed at Browning as they told stories using sign language.
The short black-and-white film clips look like ones from the silent-film era, with a narrator describing the meaning behind the hand movements.
Davis, who found the films in the vaults of the National Anthropological Archives, said they contain a wealth of information for linguists.
Among the sign-talkers at the conference, there won’t be any spoken language, said McKay-Cody, who is deaf and spoke through a phone relay link.
“The point is to gather and use the language,” she said.
The organizers hope to attract 30 fluent speakers.
“It’s hard to find people like Loretha, who have this knowledge and the fluency,” McKay-Cody said.
While sign language across the Great Plains is universal, there are many dialects along tribal lines. McKay-Cody estimated the differences between Crow and Northern Cheyenne sign language to be about 30 percent.
Davis compares the visual eloquence of the master signers on the 1930s films to listening to a great actor, such as James Earl Jones, deliver a speech.
“This is a real beautiful form of communication,” Garritson said. “Poetry in motion is what I call it.”