Some of the most extensive documentation and description of North American Indian Sign Language was carried out by Garrick Mallery at the Smithsonian Bureau of Ethnology (1879 - 1894). His research was devoted to the study of Indian sign language and pictographs. In many ways, we find that Mallery was one hundred years ahead of his time--particularly in his views about sign language.
Mallery contributed an extensive amount of material comprising several volumes
and published by the Smithsonian's Bureau of Ethnology. The Bureau's first
major publication devoted 280 pages (two-thirds of the volume) to the subject
of sign language. Mallery and numerous collaborators in the field collected
vast amounts of data on sign language among North American Indians, that
otherwise would have been lost.
Up until his untimely death in 1894, Mallery was one of the most prodigious
ethnologists working at the Smithsonian--coordinating and supervising
ethnographic field work; collecting and collating enormous amounts of data
on sign language and pictographs; analyzing data, editing the Bureau's
publications, and authoring dozens of his own scientific accounts amounting
to thousands of pages of printed material.
Mallery also made significant contributions to the learned societies,
academies, and emergent disciplines of the late nineteenth century--for
example, Anthropology, Linguistics, and Semiotics. These contributions are
evident in the historical record, and in his papers and publications on the
subjects of Indian signs, pictographs, semiotics, and theories of language
and culture. Today, one hundred years after he first published, Mallery
continues to be cited in the research literature. He has been credited as
one of the first American scholars of his generation to use the term
semiotics in his published scholarship (Umiker-Sebeok and Sebeok 1978).
Mallery's approaches to and notions about sign language were unparalleled for his
generation, and his work focused on disenfranchised members of American
society--Blacks, Indians, and Deaf people. In his pursuit of truth, he also
encountered and addressed challenging questions posed by both public and
scientific audiences of his day. Strikingly, these are questions that we
continue to address today in the field of sign language linguistics--such as
the role of gesture, modality, and environment in the formation and
transmission of language. Although Mallery's scholarship was framed and
constrained by the methods and paradigms of his times, his insights about
language were years ahead of his time--presaging the writings of Ferdinand
Saussure and William Stokoe.
For more information see the Garrick Mallery collection in the National Anthropological Archives at the Smithsonian (MS 2372).