C2C Digital Magazine (Fall 2023 / Winter 2024)

Turtle Island Hand Talk: Circle of Interconnection

By Robert Bruce Scott and Melanie McKay-Cody

Origins of the Turtle Island Hand Talk Community

Turtle Island Hand Talk (tiht.org) is introduced on its About Us page in this way: "We are a North American Indigenous group who works collaboratively to provide service and advocacy for Indigenous Deaf and DeafBlind people." 

This community and project was formed from the doctoral study of Melanie McKay-Cody, Ph.D. -- MEMORY COMES BEFORE KNOWLEDGE — NORTH AMERICAN INDIGENOUS DEAF: SOCIO-CULTURAL STUDY OF ROCK/PICTURE WRITING, COMMUNITY, SIGN LANGUAGES, AND KINSHIP -- "...when I interviewed the younger generation, they did not have the feeling of connectedness with other Native Deaf people." 

In an e-mail interview conversation between Robb Scott and Dr. McKay-Cody, she explained further the origins of her Turtle Island Hand Talk initiative.

They used social media to communicate but lacked connection with the older generation (like myself) who already have the connection through what is best known as "ethnic communication kinship." There was another organization named "Intertribal Deaf Council" (IDC) from 1994 to 2009, but after IDC disbanded, there were no activities for 10 years until Turtle Island Hand Talk (TIHT) was established in 2019. IDC had disbanded because of a long history of struggles and insecurities; they used a White (European) style of meetings and operation which led many members to leave the organization. I saw firsthand that it was not going well.

After Dr. McKay-Cody's dissertation was published, she and seven people put together "Indigenous ways of doing, being, and knowing," she recounts. "Lucky for me, the co-founders were familiar with Indigenous ways, so we came together to brainstorm ideas and ways, which resulted in my creation of the Circle of Interconnection." Their TIHT group believes in council consensual meetings, "not Robert's Rules of Order style, which would not reflect who we are." The following image is from a page on the TIHT web site: https://tiht.org/circle-of-interconnection/.

"We chose Turtle Island, which represents Canada, USA and Mexico in our Indigenous perspective, the design of a turtle," explains Dr. McKay-Cody. "Hand Talk is a term carried over from our ancestors' description of our use of sign languages."

An Active, Engaged Community

Many of the goals of the Circles involve assignments to each member's duties. For example Dr. McKay-Cody's is the yellow part of the circle because of education (K-12 and higher education), and also white because of her status as an Elder who has shared tribal knowledge. "We welcome hearing people who are interpreters, educators, veterans who lost their hearing, parents, and many more who share our mission of wholeness," she says in inviting further participation.

"Turtle Island Hand Talk is an organization serving Deaf, Hard of hearing, DeafBlind and hearing Indigenous people," Dr. McKay-Cody emphasizes. "It is not just the education: that is only one of many different circles we are doing."

On the TIHK About Us page, there is an in depth description of the group's mission and goals.

Our goals are to exchange our tribal cultures and our Indigenous Deaf and DeafBlind Cultures. Our group functions by consensus agreement and aims to provide an international understanding of our communal needs.

Our primary purpose: enrolled/status tribal members working together to develop educational materials, references, and academic accreditation through our Indigenous lenses. Through invitation, we will welcome non-indigenous people to join our group, to work closely with our Indigenous people as helper-solidarity.

There is much more information about Turtle Island Hand Talk at their web site and a large number of TIHT members as well as individuals who support their initiatives maintain active communication via a public facebook page. Anyone interested in knowing more or getting involved with TIHT also can write to contact@tiht.org.

About the Authors

Melanie McKay-Cody, Ph.D.

Dr. Melanie McKay-Cody (Cherokee, Shawnee, Powhatan, and Montaukett) earned her doctoral degree in linguistic and socio-cultural anthropology at the University of Oklahoma. She has studied critically endangered Indigenous Sign Languages in North America since 1994 and helps different tribes preserve their tribal signs. She also specialized in Indigenous Deaf studies and interpreter training incorporating Native culture, North American Indian Sign Language and ASL. She is also an educator and advocate for Indigenous interpreters and students in educational settings. Besides North American Indian Sign Language research, she had taught ASL classes in several universities for over 40 years. She is one of eight founders of Turtle Island Hand Talk, a new group focused on Indigenous Deaf/Hard of Hearing/DeafBlind and Hearing people. She is currently working at University of Arizona as an assistant professor.

Robert Bruce Scott, Ed.D.

Dr. Robert Bruce Scott is a co-editor of the C2C Digital Magazine and has been a contributor to this publication since the fall of 2021. He served as a teacher educator for 12 years in the College of Education at Fort Hays State University, preparing candidates for ESOL and special education endorsements. He is a past president of Kansas TESOL and a past president of Kansas CEC. He earned a B.A. in English and an M.A. in Curriculum & Instruction from the University of Kansas; and an Ed.D. in Special Education from Kansas State University. He earned a certificate in negotiating across cultures from the Fletcher School at Tufts University. In 2021, Dr. Scott retired from FHSU and spent the next year writing the book, "Teaching Content: Skill-Building in Inclusive Contexts" (2022). He is currently a motivational speaker and host of the Teaching Content podcast. Robb Scott has lived and taught in Ecuador, Japan, and Saudi Arabia. He grew up in Great Bend, Kansas.


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