Growing up deaf in the Navajo Nation, Colin Denny often felt isolated.
The reservation had no interpreters to allow him access to public school classes, and there were no other deaf people he could meet to share common experiences.
So when Denny, a research assistant at the University of Arizona College of Education, took the stage Feb. 12 at one of the most-watched events in the world, he hoped to show other deaf Native Americans across the country that he didn’t they are alone. Denny was one of three sign language interpreters to perform during the pre-game show at the 2023 Super Bowl at State Farm Stadium in Glendale before the game between the Philadelphia Eagles and the Kansas City Chiefs. He performed “America the Beautiful”, using a mix of American Sign Language and North American Indian Sign Language, together with singer Babyface.
“I just want to be able to inspire and empower those who are alone to look around and see that there are other people out there who are just like them and not feel so isolated or alone,” Denny said, signing an interpreter of the language of the American signs before the event. “I want them to see me on that stage and see me representing them.”
Denny hoped her performance would raise awareness of North American Indian Sign Language, which she is working to help preserve and teach through her work at the College of Education.
“A lot of people aren’t aware of the language and that it’s always been here, even if we don’t see it,” Denny said. “It’s something that I think needs national recognition and revitalization for the community.”
Find his community
Denny, 32, was born in Shiprock, New Mexico, in the Navajo Nation, and raised nearby in Pinon, Arizona. He was able to hear when he was very young, but his parents, who both teach the Navajo language in public schools, noted that Denny’s hearing loss started when he was 5 years old.
When he was 13, Denny and his parents knew that the public schools on the reservation could not meet his needs, as they were unable to provide certified sign language teachers or interpreters who could teach him ASL. They started looking for other resources in Arizona.
During a tour of the Arizona State Schools for the Deaf and the Blind campus on Tucson’s west side, Denny saw, for the first time, an entire deaf community enrolling in ASL. Even though he wasn’t yet fluent in ASL, seeing everyone sign him—students, teachers, the principal, even security guards—was a transformative experience.
“I was living so isolated, I felt like there was no one like me,” Denny said. “But when I got to campus, I realized, ‘Oh my God, there’s a language, there’s a community for deaf and hard of hearing people.'”
Denny attended Arizona State Schools for the Deaf and the Blind from eighth grade through high school, graduating in 2009. After a gap year at home, he studied fine art with a major in photography at Diné College, graduating in 2016 He then moved to Washington, DC, to attend Gallaudet University, a bilingual institution whose mission is to ensure the intellectual and professional advancement of deaf and hard of hearing people through ASL and English.
Denny is a 2018 graduate of Gallaudet with a bachelor’s degree in art and media with an emphasis in photography and graphic design, but his coursework also led him to take classes in ASL and deaf studies. Teaching sign language, he realized, was his opportunity to show his prospective students that they weren’t isolated.
It was also a way to continue the work her parents, as teachers, had done throughout their careers.
“It’s part of my DNA, something they’ve passed down to me,” Denny said, adding that it took him years to realize that “it’s something that I inherited and I want to do every day.”
Denny is pursuing his master’s degree in sign language education, online through Gallaudet. She plans to graduate in May. He also works remotely as an ASL mentor from his home in the Navajo Nation.
His experience led him to the opportunity to become a research assistant at the UArizona College of Education last summer, working with Melanie McKay-Cody, assistant professor in the Department of Disability and Psychoeducational Studies.
It was the first step of a journey that led him to study the sign language of the North American Indians.
‘We are catching up’
North American Indian Sign Language is an umbrella term used to describe the sign languages used by dozens of indigenous tribes for centuries, classified into 10 regional variations, said McKay-Cody, who has studied endangered tribal sign languages. extinction for three decades.
These regional variations include Arctic Sign Language in Canada; Plains Indian Sign Language and Southwest Indian Sign Language in the United States; Mesoamerican Sign Language in northern Mexico; and other. Within each regional variation there are many more tribe-specific sign languages.
The petroglyphs, or rock art, show that the use of tribe-specific sign languages in North America dates back centuries, said McKay-Cody, who is Cherokee and deaf.
Many regional sign languages were lost during colonization, when Native children were sent to boarding schools and residential schools for the deaf and forced to use English or American Sign Language — a form of linguistic genocide, McKay said -Cody.
McKay-Cody now leads a project, funded by the National Science Foundation, that aims to create a video sign language dictionary that documents and preserves as many tribal sign languages as possible through the involvement of tribes. The goal, she said, is to create a comprehensive online tool that tribes can use to teach languages to future generations.
“Their languages were being uprooted, basically lost,” McKay-Cody said. “But we are catching up. The younger generation needs to know that they can reach out to the elders in their community to recover that language and help preserve and pass it on.”
The project, still in its early stages, involves working with tribes to find members – perhaps the last remaining – who still know and sign their tribal languages. Those tribal members are then asked to document as many of the marks on video as possible.
Denny, in his Research Assistant role, is helping with the technical side of the project, editing and archiving the videos. But he’s also working to find people in his own tribe in the Navajo Nation who can help document Navajo Sign Language.
Most of those who still know the languages, McKay-Cody said, are between the ages of 60 and 90.
“So, one great thing about bringing Colin in is that he belongs to the younger generation,” he said. “We can start teaching people his age about him and start that process, and that way it grows. Because once these older people die, there’s no way to revitalize the language.”
The video dictionary is still in its early stages and the priority now, Denny said, is to let tribes decide how they use video. Eventually, the website will be divided into a public section, with vocabulary that tribes have agreed to share, and a private section, where only tribal members can access resources.
“Some of those markings are used for tribal ceremonies or traditions, and a lot of those ceremonies and traditions are private,” Denny said. “So, we want to make sure the tribes are okay with sharing those marks.”
Honor the past
Denny’s opportunity to perform on the Super Bowl pregame show began with an email McKay-Cody received from a representative of the National Association of the Deaf, which works with the NFL to nominate artists for the Super Bowl. ‘event.
The association representative asked McKay-Cody to nominate an indigenous deaf person from Arizona for a pre-game performance. Many came to mind, McKay-Cody said, but Denny stood out.
“I just felt that if there was one candidate that I could select who would be the honorable candidate, it would be Colin. I think he deserves it and has earned that honor,” said McKay-Cody. “I just thought she would be the perfect person to be the representative and stand on stage in front of millions of people. She also belongs to the younger generation who can show that we are still preserving our language so that other tribes can see that we want recover it and pass it on”.
Denny said he was honored to be selected.
“I’m still in shock from the whole thing, I’m still trying to process it,” she said. “There are many indigenous deaf petitioners who could have chosen.”
Denny’s performance will mix signs from American Sign Language and Plains Indian Sign Language, one of the best-documented regional variations of North American Indian Sign Language.
Denny said he sees “America the Beautiful” as a symbol for all the different communities across the United States and hopes his performance will inspire viewers to reflect on the people, plants and animals that came long before America was founded as a country.
“There are so many beautiful things here that people take for granted. They just see where we live and think, ‘We have a beautiful life.’ But we need to think about what Mother Earth does for us: the water and the land she provides,” Denny said.
“For me, from an indigenous perspective,” he added, “I want to be able to honor that.”