Presentation focuses on Preservation of North American Indian Sign Language

Date: Thursday, 13th April 2023

Dr. Melanie McKay-Cody and Colin Denny at the Preservation of North American Indian Sign Language presentation

FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. - “I didn’t see anyone doing it, so I felt like it needed to happen,” said Colin Denny, who provided a sign language performance at this year’s Superbowl. “We need someone to take the reins to make changes in a positive way and give back to the community.”


Denny is referring to the preservation of North American Indian Sign Language, which was the topic of a presentation at Coconino Community College in Flagstaff on March 24. More than 40 people attended the presentation.


As the presentation began, Dr. Melanie McKay-Cody and Denny discussed the history of North American Indian Sign Language, also known as Plains Indian Sign Language (PISL). They explained how PISL was created as a way for different tribes to communicate with one another, as they spoke different languages. Sign language was a way to bridge the gap between different tribes and allowed them to trade and communicate more effectively.


“I've worked with nine tribes, and I am studying and learning their language,” said McKay-Cody, Ph.D., a linguistic and socio-cultural anthropologist at the University of Arizona. “My research usually focuses on the past, understanding of language and tradition to preserve it for future generations.”

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McKay-Cody talked about the history of different signs and their origins. According to her, we still know about many of them because of paintings of people doing signs. She also discussed the loss of PISL over time because it was not written down and was only passed down through oral tradition. As tribes were forced onto reservations and “Education Centers,” their languages and cultures were suppressed. PISL was no exception.


Denny went on to discuss some of the challenges they face.


Language evolves over time. At one point, PISL influenced the creation of American Sign Language or ASL. Now it is becoming increasingly hard to preserve PISL because younger generations are influenced by ASL.


“It’s been a big challenge for us working on this project,” Denny said. “It’s been hard to find people who are still alive and who use the sign language of their tribe.”


Denny added that tribes are also wary of sharing their signs due to the sacred value that they hold and they don’t want it to be stolen from them.


“Our challenge is to find a center where we can store the information and give to the community,” Denny said. “We want to give to them as opposed to take from them because they are our future. We want to keep the language of past generations so the future generations will know the sign language of the past.”


They also face linguistic and cultural differences. In ASL, facial expressions are an important part of the language. However, in many tribal sign languages, facial expressions are not integrated into the language.


 “The indigenous community doesn't always use expressions even when they sign. That’s a struggle for indigenous Deaf people.” Denny said as they try to understand the meaning behind each sign.


McKay-Cody and Denny and their team are publishing their work to the SOOSL dictionary, which is a computer program that provides a place for international academic groups to publish sign language dictionaries.


Later in the presentation, Denny spoke about his performance at Super Bowl 57. The event is undoubtedly diverse, but the presence of Native Americans at such events, especially those using PISL or other Native languages isn’t nearly as common.


“The Super Bowl wanted to have someone from Arizona signing, someone who could kind of be like a host, but I didn’t know who they would select,” Denny said, smiling.


He was nominated, and he said he knew that he had to represent the presence of all of the different tribes in America during his presentation of “America the Beautiful.” He also said he thought that it was important to ensure that he depicted technological growth because in the past, there was not all this technology.

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Denny then gave the opportunity for the audience to read “America the Beautiful” before going into his performance of the song, describing why he chose to sign what he did the way he did.


“At the Super Bowl, I didn't want to stand on the field and wait for the music and the singing to begin without doing something. In honor of our culture, and the connection to the east, I signed the rising sun moving from the east across the land and through the setting sun in the west.” Denny said.  


He continued to “… from sea to shining sea …,” and through the rest of his performance, he eloquently performed and described what his performance at Superbowl 57 meant - really diving into how this is “our home and our place, our foundation, and our community.”


Denny went on to talk about his upbringing and added that when he went to a residential school for deaf children, he realized there was a lot missing from his education.


“I didn’t feel like the public school was that good for me,” he said. “I didn’t have a good understanding because there was no sign language. It was when I transferred to the Arizona School for the Deaf and Blind, everything changed. My education was in ASL. I could understand perspectives and how things impacted my family, my community, my friends. I felt like I could see myself following in my parent’s footsteps, guiding the next generation.”


Denny concluded the presentation by saying, “Who knows? What's next? But I can see being involved in education in the field where I'm, you know, following my parents and how they wanted to give back to the community.”


For more information about the project, visit

Matthew Cowser

PR Intern



All Dates

  • Thursday, 13th April 2023