Researcher will showcase Native American sign language in Super Bowl performance

Colin Denny

"I just want to be able to inspire and empower those who are on their own to look around and see that there are other people out there who are just like them, and to not feel so isolated or lonely," said Colin Denny, who will give a sign language performance during the Super Bowl pregame show on Sunday.

Lyle Begay

Growing up as a deaf person on the Navajo Nation, Colin Denny often felt isolated.

The reservation didn't have interpreters to provide him access to his public-school classes, and there weren't other deaf people for him to meet to share common experiences.

So, when Denny, a research assistant in the College of Education, takes the stage on Sunday at one of the most-watched events in the world, he hopes to show other Native American deaf people across the country that they're not alone. 

Denny will be one of three sign language performers to perform during the pregame show at the 2023 Super Bowl at State Farm Stadium in Glendale ahead of the game between the Philadelphia Eagles and the Kansas City Chiefs. He will perform "America the Beautiful," using a mix of American Sign Language and North American Indian Sign Language, alongside the singer Babyface.

"I just want to be able to inspire and empower those who are on their own to look around and see that there are other people out there who are just like them, and to not feel so isolated or lonely," Denny said, signing through an American Sign Language interpreter. "I want them to see me on that stage and see that I'm representing them."

Denny also hopes his performance will raise awareness of North American Indian Sign Language, which he is working to help preserve and teach through his work in the College of Education.

"A lot of people aren't aware of the language and that it has always been here, even if we don't see it," Denny said. "That's something that I feel needs national recognition and revitalization for the community."

Finding his community

Denny, 32, was born in Shiprock, New Mexico, on the Navajo Nation, and grew up 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, noticed Denny's hearing loss beginning when he was 5.

By the time he was 13, Denny and his parents knew the public schools on the reservation could not accommodate his needs, as they were unable to provide certified sign language interpreters or teachers who could teach him ASL. They began looking around Arizona for other resources.

On 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 community of deaf people signing in ASL. Even though he was not yet fluent in ASL, seeing everyone signing it – students, teachers, the principal, even security guards – was a transformational experience.

"I was living so isolated, I felt there was nobody like me," Denny said. "But when I got to the campus, I realized, 'Oh my gosh, there is a language, there is a community for deaf and hard-of-hearing people.'"

Denny attended the 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 focus on photography at Diné College, earning his associate degree in 2016. He then moved to Washington, D.C., to attend Gallaudet University, a bilingual institution whose mission is to ensure the intellectual and professional advancement of deaf and hard-of-hearing individuals through ASL and English.

Denny graduated in 2018 from Gallaudet with a bachelor's degree in art and media with a concentration in photography and graphic design, but his coursework also led him to classes on ASL and deaf studies. Teaching sign language, he realized, was his opportunity to show his future students they weren't isolated. 

It was also a way to continue the work his parents, as teachers, had spent their careers doing.

"That's a part of my DNA, something they passed down to me," Denny said, adding that it took him years to realize that "it's something I inherited and that I want to do every day."

Denny is pursuing his master's degree in sign language education, online through Gallaudet. He expects to graduate in May. He also works remotely as an ASL mentor from his home on the Navajo Nation.

His experience led him, last summer, to an opportunity to become a research assistant in the UArizona College of Education, working with Melanie McKay-Cody, an assistant professor in the Department of Disabilities and Psychoeducational Studies.

It was the first step on a path that led to his work studying North American Indian Sign Language.

'We're catching up'

North American Indian Sign Language is a broad term used to describe sign languages used by dozens of Indigenous tribes for centuries, classified by 10 regional variations, said McKay-Cody, who has studied critically endangered tribal sign languages for three decades. 

Those regional variations include Arctic Sign Language in Canada; Plains Indian Sign Language and Southwest Indian Sign Language in the U.S.; Mesoamerican Sign Language in Northern Mexico; and others. Within each regional variation are many more tribe-specific sign languages.

Melanie McKay-Cody

Melanie McKay-Cody

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 deaf residential schools and forced to use English or American Sign Language – a form of linguistic genocide, McKay-Cody said.

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 her team can through outreach to tribes. The goal, she said, is to create a comprehensive online tool that tribes can use to teach the languages to future generations.

"Their languages were being eradicated, pretty much being lost," McKay-Cody said. "But we're catching up. The younger generation needs to know that they can reach out to the elders in their community to reclaim that language and help preserve it and pass it down."

The project, still in its early stages, involves partnering 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 signs as they can on video.

Denny, in his role as a research assistant, is helping with the technical side of the project, editing and archiving videos. But he's also working to find people in his own tribe on the Navajo Nation who can help document Navajo Sign Language.

Most who still know the languages, McKay-Cody said, are between the ages of 60 and 90.

"So, a great thing about having Colin involved is he's from the younger generation," she said. "We can start teaching people of his age and start this process, and that way, it grows. Because once these older people pass on, there's no way to revitalize the language."

The video dictionary is still in its early stages, and the priority now, Denny said, is letting the tribes decide how the videos should be used. Eventually, the website will be divided into a public section, with vocabulary that the tribes have agreed to share, and a private section, where only tribal members can access the resources.

"Some of those signs 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 OK with sharing those signs."

Honoring the past

Denny's opportunity to perform in the Super Bowl pregame show began with an email McKay-Cody received from a representative with the National Association of the Deaf, which partners with the NFL to nominate performers for the event. 

The association's representative asked McKay-Cody to nominate an Indigenous deaf person from Arizona for a pregame performance. Many came to mind, McKay-Cody said, but Denny stood out.

"I just felt that if there were any candidate I could select who would be the honorable candidate, it would be Colin. I think that he deserves it and has earned that honor," McKay-Cody said. "I just thought that he would be the perfect person to be the representative and be on stage in front of millions of people. He's also from the younger generation who can show that we're still preserving our language so that other tribes can see that we want to reclaim it and pass it down."

Denny said he was honored to be selected.

"I'm still in shock about the whole thing, I'm still trying to process it," he said. "There are many Indigenous deaf signers that they could've chosen."

Denny's performance will blend signs from American Sign Language and Plains Indian Sign Language, one of the most documented regional variations of North American Indian Sign Language.

Denny said he sees "America the Beautiful" as a symbol for all the diverse communities in the U.S. And he hopes his performance inspires 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 good life.' But we have to think about what Mother Earth does for us – the water and land she provides," Denny said.

"For me, from an Indigenous perspective," he added, "I want to be able to honor that." 

Super Bowl 2023 programming will begin at 4:30 p.m. Arizona time on Sunday, Feb. 12, on Fox. The game also can be streamed using the Fox Sports and NFL+ apps.