- Do You See What I Mean? Plains Indian Sign Talk and the Embodiment of Action
Plains Indian Sign Talk (PST) is a sign language that served as the lingua franca among various Native Americans of the Great Plains. It was commonly held that PST had all but disappeared after the establishment of reservations and the forced adjustment to the English language, but Brenda Farnell's work proves otherwise, examining how PST remains an integral part of storytelling in Assiniboine (Nakota) culture. Originally published in 1995, Do You See What I Mean? explores how PST challenges traditional ways of understanding language, culture, and the body. For Farnell, words and gestures work in tandem to create meaning, and to hold one in higher regard than the other is to ignore the myriad of ways human beings make meaning.
Chapters 1 and 2 serve as introductory material, situating Farnell's position on the nature of language and the relationship between speech and manual gesture. Using the work of E. B. Tylor on "the gesture language," Farnell explores the ways in which power, language, and the body influence anthropological and linguistic thought (6). Nineteenth-century anthropologists believed that languages reflected the mental capacity and development of those who spoke them; therefore, gesturing was seen as a "primitive precursor [End Page 81] to speech" (33). Tylor rejected this idea, instead suggesting that gesture reflects the primitive nature of the language, not the people who speak it. Farnell goes further and argues that sign language—or what Tylor would call gesturing—should be understood as a medium of expression that is part of a complex system of iconic signs. This understanding allows Farnell to analyze PST as part of a spoken language, not as a sign language that can create full meaning on its own.
Chapters 3 through 5 offer detailed analyses of three Assiniboine narratives to demonstrate three distinct ways gesturing is integral to the language. Farnell presents these stories in terms of their relationship to space, organizing them into chapters called "Geographical and Historical Spaces," "Moral and Ethical Spaces," and "Spatial Orientation and Deixis in PST and Nakota." Farnell's choice to present the narratives in terms of space is useful to her argument, as it demonstrates how fundamental the body and the sense of place are to both the Assiniboine narratives and to language as a whole. For Farnell, this relationship is bound by the political and historical attempts to control spaces and the bodies within those spaces. It is in this chapter that Farnell introduces the concept of the four directions and its operation as an organizing principle for Assiniboine culture. The relationship between body, space, and language is further emphasized in chapter 6, "Storytelling and the Embodiment of Symbolic Form." Farnell analyzes how the cultural importance of a circle is reflected in language and, by extension, everyday life. The circle operates as a symbol of the shared community, a symbol and a unifying concept that surfaces in both storytelling and daily life. In chapter 7, Farnell more thoroughly examines Assiniboine philosophies and how language and body movement are central to meaning, particularly meaning in social life. The gestures that Farnell discusses throughout the book emerge here as the essential part of Assiniboine being-in-the-world, and language, by extension, is only a part of expressing that knowing.
Farnell's position as an anthropologist and a former dancer inspires valuable viewpoints about language and gesture. To focus on the body as opposed to speech is in the realm of pre-Saussurean [End Page 82] thought, where language is an assortment of meanings as opposed to a system. This is a direct challenge to Western conceptions about language, and a good one, I might add, though by its very nature—an unsystematic understanding of what has always been understood to be a system—it is vulnerable to criticism, especially from linguists.
This is a great feat, to be sure, one that should not be taken lightly or...