Biography of General Hugh L. Scott


General Hugh L. Scott demonstrating the sign for WOLF, before 1934.
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By the 1900s, the use of Indian Sign Language was greatly diminished and appeared endangered. Recognizing the endangered status of Indian Sign Language, General Hugh L. Scott led the preservation effort until his death in 1934. Scott is a notable historical figure, and his extensive papers from collections within the Library of Congress and Smithsonian in Washington, D.C.

In 1930, through no less than an Act of the US Congress, the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History and other governmental agencies collaborated to produce a film and dictionary project for the "Preservation of Indian Sign Language." General Hugh L. Scott had lobbied Congress for support and directed the project that led to The Indian Sign Language Grand Council that was filmed September 4-6, 1930, in Browning, Montana, co-hosted by the Blackfeet nation. Film clips from this gathering are featured on this website.

This event was the largest intertribal meeting of Indian chiefs, elders, medicine men, and other representatives ever filmed. There were eighteen official participants, including representatives from a dozen different tribes and language groups from the Plains, Plateau, and Basin cultural areas. A permanent monument to the Indian Sign Language Council signifying the importance of this gathering was established at the conference site, and each of the council members had their footprints placed in bronze as a part of the monument. On this site was eventually constructed the Museum of the Plains Indian.

General Hugh L. Scott began his military career as a Lieutenant in the US Cavalry, and by 1915 was promoted to Major General. Before mandatory retirement from military and civil service in 1917 at the age of 65, Scott served as interim Secretary of War on Woodrow Wilson's cabinet. Though officially retired, Scott remained extremely active in civil service and as a member of the Board of Indian Commissioners. He spent the remainder of his life studying, lecturing, and writing about Indian Sign Language. Scott was a member of numerous learned societies including the American Anthropological Association.

Scott was also made an honorary member of various Indian tribes, and he was seventy- eight years old when the films were made in 1930. He had been working with numerous Indian groups and signing with them for more than fifty years. The Indians called him Mole-I-Gu-Op, signifying "one who talks with his hands". Scott had fulfilled one of his life's goals, with the production of the film dictionary of Indian Sign Language (1934). From the historical record, we know that he was a staunch advocate and ally of American Indian groups, and that Scott had successfully lobbied for legislation on their behalf.

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.