How this woman’s indigenous sign language is helping her connect with her culture | Start Classified

The word “deaf” isn’t just an adjective for Paula MacDonald — it’s part of her identity.

Growing up, she attended the Sir James Whitney School for the Deaf in Belleville, Ontario, where she learned American Sign Language (ASL) as her primary means of communication.

That’s where “I got really culturally deaf,” MacDonald told CBC through an ASL interpreter, explaining the sense of belonging she felt in the deaf community.

It wasn’t until she attended a university for the deaf in Rochester, NY that she wanted to learn more about her other culture.

CLOCK | What I would like people to know about indigenous sign languages:

Why Learning Indigenous Sign Languages ​​Is Helping Paula MacDonald Reclaim Her Heritage

MacDonald, half Cree and deaf, explains what learning Plains Sign Language means to her and why she wants to spread it.

Born in Saskatchewan, MacDonald is half Cree from Contract 4 on her mother’s side. She was adopted by a white couple in Ottawa when she was young.

Her parents have always supported her in connecting to her roots, she said, but she has been on her own to learn more about Deaf and Aboriginal culture.

“I’d gone to a couple of powwows, you know, to learn about the culture,” she recalls.

She said it was difficult because she needed sign language interpreters to understand what was going on.

Exploring overlapping identities

Upon joining the National Technical Institute for the Deaf (NTID), MacDonald noticed a cultural diversity within the deaf community that she had not seen before.

Meeting people from other countries engaging in conversations with ASL in their country’s sign languages ​​made MacDonald curious about her own cultural background.

Through a little research, MacDonald found Marsha Ireland, a deaf elder from the Oneida Nation of the Thames near London, Ontario, who developed her own sign language to better connect with Oneida culture.

MacDonald invited Ireland to make a presentation at her college. There she not only learned about the Oneida Sign Language, which Ireland created for deaf members of her community, but also other existing sign languages ​​historically used by Indigenous groups.

This intrigued MacDonald.

“It really got the ball rolling for me when I realized that I can’t just say, ‘Hey, I’m an aboriginal person,’ and that’s it,” said MacDonald. “I have to put in the work. I actually need to connect to my culture. So [Marsha Ireland] really lit the fire in me.”

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

Connect with their culture

MacDonald is now an Indigenous Studies student at Carleton University, and for the past three years she has been self-taught in Plains Sign Language through online resources and dictionaries.

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

It’s still sometimes used today in western Canada and American states like Montana, but MacDonald said finding resources to learn the language has been difficult.

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

When it comes to sign language, MacDonald said, “There’s a little less record [involved] and a little less storytelling to pass it on.”

According to MacDonald, Indigenous sign languages ​​are more gestural than ASL, as illustrated by the illustrations in her book Indian Sign Language. (Francis Ferland/CBC)

While there are 70 indigenous languages ​​spoken in Canada, only three indigenous sign languages ​​are used, according to Darin Flynn, a professor of linguistics at the University of Calgary.

These include Inuit Sign Language, Plateau Sign Language (used on the west coast by nations like the Salish), and Plains Sign Language, which is the best known of the three today – with 100 fluent sign languages ​​in the United States and Canada.

Flynn said that Plains Sign Language was originally not only used by the deaf, but rather as a “lingua franca” for people from different nations to communicate with one another.

With the arrival of Europeans, sign language became even more important. Then, much like English and French replaced many spoken indigenous languages, Flynn said the development of ASL shortly after Europeans arrived meant it began to replace traditional indigenous sign languages.

“People find it hard to put it that way, but it’s kind of a colonial language. It’s the one who takes power,” he said. “[Deaf] People were put into schools and taught sign languages ​​that weren’t exactly indigenous.”

The parallels between Indigenous education and deaf education are not lost on MacDonald.

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

Lanny Real Bird teaches Plains Sign Language at the 2019 Poundmaker Language Camp in Saskatchewan. (Ntawnis Piapot/CBC)

For MacDonald, learning Plains Sign Language not only connects it to one’s identity, but also helps raise awareness of the loss of Indigenous sign languages ​​in general. She also hopes that this awareness will help revitalize the languages.

For now, MacDonald said she will continue her self-education and plans to attend a Plains Sign Language camp in Saskatchewan in the future.

“I really hope so [the language] will grow. And I think as it grows, it will help me feel even more connected to my community,” she said.

COVID has put the spotlight on the communication challenges faced by deaf and hard of hearing people – particularly because of the effect of masks. CBC Ottawa reached out to members of this community to ask about their pandemic experiences and what we want people to know about their lives.

Click here to meet two deaf teenagers coping with the pandemic and a lip-reading teacher.

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