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Superbowl performance aims to raise awareness about endangered Native American sign languages

A Navajo man in a red flannel shirt stands in front of a redrock canyon
Lyle Begay
University of Arizona
Colin Denny

This Sunday’s Superbowl pregame show will include a performance of “America the Beautiful” by a Navajo sign language interpreter. Colin Denny will use signs from a regional variation of North American Indian Sign Language, which has been used by the Deaf and hard-of-hearing in Indigenous tribes for centuries and is now in danger of disappearing. KNAU’s Melissa Sevigny reports.     

Colin Denny will perform the song with a mix of American Sign Language and Plains Indian Sign Language, which is one of 10 regional variations used by Native American tribes.

Speaking through two different interpreters, Denny said the opportunity is an honor. "Especially for those who don’t have that exposure to Indigenous people who are Deaf and use sign language—and so I feel a personal responsibility that I have to show the world and represent our nations here in the States," he said.

Denny, who began to lose his hearing at age five, is a research assistant at the University of Arizona working on a project to document signs from tribal languages. Many signs were lost during colonization when Native children were sent to boarding schools and forced to use English or American Sign Language (ASL).

"ASL was not the first language to be here," Denny explained. "If you look back historically, you can find roots of sign language among Native tribes."

The project’s goal is to create a video dictionary to document tribal signs, including a private section for tribal members to preserve and teach signs that are considered sacred.

Melissa joined KNAU's team in 2015 to report on science, health, and the environment. Her work has appeared nationally on NPR and been featured on Science Friday. She grew up in Tucson, Arizona, where she fell in love with the ecology and geology of the Sonoran desert.