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Crow tribal member looking to preserve historical language

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Posted at 5:52 PM, Jul 07, 2022

BILLINGS — One of the oldest languages in North America, rooted in Native American history, is called hand talk. It's a form of sign language that dates back as far as the 16th century and is in danger of being forgotten.

Hand talk was observed nearly two centuries before American Sign Language came to be what it is today. For many native people, it's for more than just the hearing impaired, it's a part of their culture and day-to-day communication.

Lanny Real Bird, the native language advocate for the Crow tribe, has been using hand talk since he was a child.

"As a young person, I grew up learning sign language from my father and my grandmother," said Real Bird, who lives in Hardin.

Its history is rooted in allowing tribes that may not speak the same language, communicate with one another despite the language barrier.

"We would have a common reference to nature like buffalo or deer as well as the native name for the town of Billings," added Real Bird.

Real Bird spends much of his time traveling around the state and into the Dakotas as well as Canada teaching groups the language. Many of the groups are using his teaching methods and using it to complement their native language.

"It's taught in a four-step process, starting with signing, learning the motions, listening to the native word and then moving towards conversations," added Real Bird.

"The language aids in traditional speech and helps build an appreciation for one's culture," said Real Bird.

The goal of his teachings is to continue to spread awareness and ensure that the language continues to live on and doesn't become a memory of the past.