How Indigenous signal languages are serving to this lady join along with her tradition

For Paula MacDonald, the phrase “deaf” is not simply an adjective — it is part of her id.

Rising up, she attended the Sir James Whitney College for the Deaf in Belleville, Ont., the place she discovered American Signal Language (ASL) as her main technique of communication. 

It was there that “I actually turned culturally deaf,” MacDonald advised CBC with the assistance of an ASL interpreter, explaining the sense of belonging she felt throughout the deaf group. 

It wasn’t till she attended a college for the deaf in Rochester, N.Y., that she discovered herself eager to be taught extra about her different tradition.

WATCH | What I need individuals to find out about Indigenous signal languages:

MacDonald was born in Saskatchewan and is half Cree from Treaty 4 on her mom’s aspect. At a younger age, she was adopted by a white couple in Ottawa. 

Whereas she says her mother and father have been at all times supportive of her connecting along with her roots, she was on her personal to be taught extra about each Deaf and Indigenous tradition. 

“I had gone to a few powwows, you already know, form of making an attempt to be taught extra in regards to the tradition,” she remembers.

She mentioned it was tough as a result of she wanted signal language interpreters to know what was taking place. 

Exploring intersecting identities

When she obtained to the Nationwide Technical Institute for the Deaf (NTID), MacDonald observed a cultural variety throughout the deaf group she hadn’t seen earlier than. 

Assembly individuals from different nations who integrated their nation’s signal languages into dialog together with ASL made MacDonald interested by her personal cultural background. 

By a little bit of analysis, MacDonald discovered Marsha Eire, a deaf elder from Oneida Nation of the Thames close to London, Ont., who developed her personal signal language to higher join with Oneida tradition. 

Macdonald invited Eire and her husband and interpreter, Max Eire, to her school for a presentation. There, she discovered not solely in regards to the Oneida signal language Eire created for deaf members of her group, but additionally about different present signal languages used traditionally by Indigenous teams. 

That made MacDonald curious. 

“It actually obtained the ball rolling for me, realizing that I am unable to simply say, ‘Hey, I am Indigenous,’ and that is it,” MacDonald mentioned. “I’ve to place within the work I have to, to truly hook up with my tradition. So [Marsha Ireland] actually lit the hearth in me.”

‘[More people] are studying [Indigenous Sign Language) just because they enjoy it or want to learn it. But it’s not as easy to connect to and to learn as spoken Indigenous language,’ says Paula MacDonald, because there aren’t as many speakers and resources available. (Francis Ferland/CBC)

Connecting to her culture

MacDonald is now taking Indigenous studies at Carleton University and for the past three years, she’s been teaching herself Plains Sign Language through online resources and dictionaries.

Plains Sign Language was traditionally used by people belonging to various groups, including the Cree, Blackfoot and Dakota. It spanned from the north Saskatchewan River, to northern Alberta, across Saskatchewan to Manitoba, and all the way down to the Rio Grande in Mexico.

It’s still sometimes used in western Canada today and in American states such as Montana, but MacDonald says it has been difficult to find resources to learn the language. 

“The spoken languages are considered more sacred languages, so they’re a bit more protected,” she explained. 

When it comes to sign language, MacDonald says “there’s a little less record-keeping [involved] and rather less storytelling to cross it on.”

MacDonald says Indigenous signal languages are extra gestural than ASL, as proven by illustrations in her e-book referred to as Indian Signal Language. (Francis Ferland/CBC)

Whereas there are 70 spoken Indigenous languages in Canada, simply three Indigenous signal languages are in use, in response to Darin Flynn, professor of linguistics on the College of Calgary.

That features Inuit Signal Language, Plateau Signal Language (used on the west coast by nations such because the Salish) and Plains Signal Language, which is essentially the most broadly recognized of the three at present — with 100 fluent signers throughout america and Canada. 

Flynn says Plains Signal Language wasn’t initially used solely by deaf people however quite as a “lingua franca,” for individuals from completely different nations to speak with one another. 

With the arrival of the Europeans, signal language gained much more significance. Then very similar to English and French changed many spoken Indigenous languages, Flynn mentioned the event of ASL quickly after the Europeans arrived meant it started to switch conventional Indigenous signal languages.

“Individuals discover it exhausting to place it this fashion, however it’s form of the colonial language. It is the one which’s taking up,” he mentioned. “[Deaf] individuals have been taken to varsities and taught signal languages that have been exactly not Indigenous ones.” 

The parallels between Indigenous training and deaf training aren’t misplaced on MacDonald. 

“[In both residential schools and schools for the deaf] … our pure languages have been banned [and] have been taken from us. We weren’t allowed to make use of them,” she mentioned. 

Lanny Actual Chook teaches Plains Signal Language on the 2019 Poundmaker Language Camp in Saskatchewan. (Ntawnis Piapot/CBC)

For MacDonald, studying Plains Signal Language not solely connects her with personal id, but additionally helps to carry extra consciousness to the lack of Indigenous signal languages normally. She additionally hopes this consciousness will assist revitalize the languages. 

For now, MacDonald mentioned she’s going to proceed her self-education, together with plans to attend a Plains Signal Language camp in Saskatchewan within the fall. 

“‘I am actually hoping that [the language] will develop. And I believe if it does develop, it would assist me really feel much more related to my group,” she mentioned.

COVID has put a highlight on communication challenges confronted by people who find themselves deaf and exhausting of listening to —significantly due to the affect of masks. CBC Ottawa reached out to these on this group to ask about their pandemic experiences and what they need individuals to find out about their lives. 

You probably have a narrative you’d prefer to share about being deaf, ship us an e-mail.

Hafidah Rosyid

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