NWC News Desk

Sign talker Ron Garritson at Nov. 16 Buffalo Feast

Posted November 2, 2006

P O W E L L, W y o. - In celebration of Native American Heritage Month, the Native Ways club at Northwest College in Powell will host its annual buffalo feast at 6 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 16, in the Trapper Rendezvous Lounge of the DeWitt Student Center.

Sign talker Ron Garritson, a fourth generation native of Billings, Mont., is the featured speaker. A Metis of Cree, Cherokee and European heritage, he was adopted by families of the Crow and Gros Ventre Nations and grew up on and around the Crow Indian Reservation. For the past 30 years, Garritson has been on a personal mission to preserve, restore and maintain the Plains Indian Sign Language.

With a vocabulary of over 900 signs, he still doesn't consider himself an expert, even though he's served as a consultant and coach for theater productions and documentaries. His influence can be seen in Native American Youth Theatre productions and the Theatre of Yugen production of "Crazy Horse - Moon of the Scarlet Plums," which toured Japan and the United States in 2005.

Garritson has conducted workshops, presentations and symposiums across Montana as a way to bring the Plains Indian Sign Language back into everyday use. He believes the nearly lost sign language is as important in the Native American culture as the spoken one.

His passion for the silent language began on the reservation where he watched the Crow elders use it. In the late 1970s, Garritson's older brother ignited this passion into a life's mission by giving him the book "Indian Talk - Hand Signals of the American Indian" by Iron Eyes Cody. Since then, he's made an exhaustive study of this unique communication form by learning it first hand, studying it in old films from the U.S. National Archives and by reading extensively.

During his lifetime, Garritson has witnessed the near disappearance of sign language among the Crow. He said it was common to see elders using it as late as the 1970s and '80s, but now it's seldom seen and many young Crows aren't even aware of it.

When not laboring on behalf of sign language preservation, Garritson works as an interpretive park ranger at Pompeys Pillar National Monument.

His talk about the Plains Indian Sign Language is scheduled after his audience has feasted on a dinner of buffalo and other foods indigenous to the Americas. The evening also includes a sampling table of Native American foods and a silent auction.

Tickets cost $10 for adults and $5 for NWC students and children 12 years and under. Tickets must be reserved before Nov. 16 by e-mailing Mary Baumann or calling her at (307) 754-6138 or toll-free (800) 560-4692, ext. 6138.