Biography of Garrick Mallery

Portrait of Garrick Mallery, before 1894. (Neg 45190)
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).

This website was developed by Jeffrey Davis with support from a 2006-2007 research fellowship from the National Endowment for the Humanities and National Science Foundation for Documenting Endangered Languages (DEL). Hand talk: Sign Language among American Indian Nations is copyright Jeffrey Davis.