How Indigenous Sign Languages ​​Help This Woman Connect With Her Culture

For Paula MacDonald, the word “deaf” isn’t just an adjective, it’s part of who she is.

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 really became culturally deaf,” MacDonald told CBC with the help of an ASL interpreter, explaining the sense of belonging she felt within the deaf community.

It wasn’t until she attended college for the deaf in Rochester, NY that she found herself wanting to learn more about her other culture.

WATCH | What I want people to know about Indigenous Sign Languages:

MacDonald was born in Saskatchewan and is half Treaty 4 Cree on her mother’s side. At a young age, she was adopted by a white couple in Ottawa.

Although she says her parents always encouraged her to reconnect with her roots, she was on her own to learn more about Deaf and Indigenous culture.

“I had gone to a few powwows, you know, kind of trying to learn about the culture,” she recalled.

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

Explore cross identities

When she arrived at the National Technical Institute for the Deaf (NTID), MacDonald noticed a cultural diversity within the deaf community that she had never seen before.

Meeting people from other countries who incorporated their country’s sign languages ​​into conversation with ASL made MacDonald curious about her own cultural background.

After some 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 and her husband and performer, Max Ireland, to his college for a presentation. There she discovered not only the Oneida Sign Language created by Ireland for deaf members of her community, but also other existing sign languages ​​historically used by indigenous groups.

This made MacDonald curious.

“It really got me started, realizing that I can’t just say, ‘Hey, I’m Native’ and that’s it,” MacDonald said. “I have to do the work that I need to connect to my culture. So [Marsha Ireland] really lit the fire in me.”

‘[More people] learn [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 a little less storytelling to convey it.”

MacDonald says that Native sign languages ​​are more gestural than ASL, as shown in illustrations in his book, Indian Sign Language. (Francis Ferland/CBC)

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

This includes Inuit Sign Language, Plateau Sign Language (used on the West Coast by nations such as the Salish) and Plains Sign Language, which is the best known of the three today – with 100 signatories fluent in the United States and Canada.

Flynn says Plains Sign Language was not originally used only by deaf people, but rather as a “lingua franca”, allowing people of different nations to communicate with each other.

With the arrival of Europeans, sign language took on even more importance. Then, just as English and French replaced many spoken Indigenous languages, Flynn said the development of ASL soon after Europeans arrived meant it began to replace traditional Indigenous sign languages.

“People have a hard time saying it that way, but it’s kind of the colonial language. It’s the one taking over,” he said. “[Deaf] people were taken to schools and taught sign languages ​​that were specifically not native languages. »

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 his own identity, but also helps raise awareness of the loss of Indigenous sign languages ​​in general. She also hopes that this awareness will help revitalize languages.

For now, MacDonald said she will continue her self-education, including planning to attend a Plains Sign Language camp in Saskatchewan in the fall.

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


COVID has brought to light the communication challenges faced by people who are deaf and hard of hearing, especially due to the impact of masks. CBC Ottawa reached out to members of this community to ask what they’ve been through during the pandemic and what they want people to know about their lives.

If you have a story you would like to share about deafness, Email us.

James C. Tibbs