Resources and Information for Deaf Native Americans

American Indians With Hearing Loss

Although it is small, the deaf Native American community does have its own organizations, books, and history as well as unique cultural qualities.

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Native American Sign Language

Native American sign language is not an offshoot of American Sign. Instead, this language of gestures was invented by the tribes of the great plains to communicate across distances. It differs dramatically from standard ASL, using many more one-handed gestures and fewer facial gestures.

Native American Groups and Organizations for the Deaf

Sacred Circle, which was originally called the Intertribal Deaf Council, a community of deaf Native Americans that communicates online through Facebook and holds get-togethers. Their mission is: “to provide education, information & referral, and training about American Indians, Alaska Natives and First Nations Indians who are Deaf, Deaf-Blind, Hard of Hearing and late-deafened to tribal councils, family members and other interested parties in order to improve the social, educational, vocational, health and spiritual well-being of this population.” 

Articles and Books on Deaf Native Americans

There have been some articles published on the deaf Native American community. Several of these are listed on the web site of the National Multicultural Interpreter Project, which offers downloadable PDFs of a cultural awareness and sensitivity curriculum. A shorter listing is available from Info to Go as part of its publication Selected Readings and Resources on Multicultural Issues and Deaf Students. A few books including deaf Native Americans have been published:

  • Step into the Circle: The Heartbeat of American Indian, Alaska Native, and First Nations Deaf Communities, an out of print book about deaf native Americans published by Ago Publications with pictures, art, poems, biographies, and autobiographies.
  • The Silent One: The Adventure of a Hearing-Impaired Heroine

History and Deaf Native Americans

A deaf Native American, Black Coyote, was one of the first, if not the first, victims at Wounded Knee. According to the website First Peoples' Voices:

"Natives were informed [by members of the US Cavalry] that they would be disarmed. Natives stacked their guns in the center, but the soldiers were not satisfied. The soldiers went through the Natives' tents, bringing out bundles and tearing them open, throwing knives, axes, and tent stakes into the pile. Then they ordered searches of the individual warriors. The Natives became very angry. 

"The search found only two rifles, one brand new, belonging to a young man named Black Coyote. He raised it over his head and cried out that he had spent much money for the rifle and that it belonged to him. Black Coyote was deaf and therefore did not respond promptly to the demands of the soldiers. He would have been convinced to put it down by his tribes people, but that option was not possible because the soldiers so hastily grabbed the youth and spun him around. Then a shot was heard; its source is not clear but it began the killing."

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By Jamie Berke
 Jamie Berke is a deafness and hard of hearing expert.