Department of Languages

ASL and Creative Inquiry Students Return to Martha’s Vineyard for Research, Outreach

Assistant Professor of ASL Jody Cripps and his Spring 2023 ASL Creative Inquiry team in Lambert’s Cove, Martha’s Vineyard, MA.

A Return to Martha’s Vineyard

Last April, Assistant Professor of ASL Jody Cripps and seven ASL students traveled to Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts, as part of their Creative Inquiry course to initiate a community outreach program aiming to help revive the historic signed language community on the island. This Spring, a new team of students led the way: on April 9-15, Professor Cripps and six of his Creative Inquiry students returned to Martha’s Vineyard for Clemson’s third visit. The group’s project allowed for students to engage in unique and important field research while collaborating with local cultural and historical institutions.

The Deaf Legacy of Martha’s Vineyard at a Glance

Martha’s Vineyard, an island of just over 17,000 residents off the coast of Cape Cod, Massachusetts, has a rich history in deaf genealogy and signed language that goes back centuries.

The earliest deaf settlers in Martha’s Vineyard arrived in the late 1690s, the first of which was Jonathan Lambert, for whom Lambert’s Cove, visited by Professor Cripps and his students, was named. Due to the prevalence of hereditary deafness in the genealogy of many of the island’s residents, the number of deaf individuals rose from the late 17th century onwards until its decline in the 19th century. The last native islander with deaf genes was Eva S. West-Look, who died in 1950. Martha’s Vineyard Signed Language (MVSL) is a unique piece of the legacy which arose from this community, and in the past, it was used by both hearing and non-hearing members of the community to varying degrees. The last resident who knew and used Martha’s Vineyard Signed Language was Katie West, who died in 1952.

Today, the deaf legacy is kept alive in Martha’s Vineyard through various cultural and historical institutions which preserve and educate the public about deaf history on the island. Katie West’s home was purchased by the town in 1956 and is now the Chilmark Library, which houses the Chilmark Deaf/Signed Language Community Digital Archive. The Martha’s Vineyard Museum maintains several important artifacts related to deaf history on the island, including Alexander Graham Bell’s notebook on his investigations into deaf genealogy on the island in the 1880s. Other local landmarks and historic places make tangible efforts to acknowledge their links to past deaf residents and history.

The team in front of the house of Katie West, the last user of Martha’s Vineyard Signed Language. West’s house was purchased by the town in 1956 and is now the Chilmark Library.

Past Creative Inquiry Projects

Last year, Professor Cripps and his Creative Inquiry students spearheaded several community outreach opportunities working alongside local institutions with the aim of promoting deaf history in the community and reviving the signed language tradition on the island.

Professor Cripps and his students visited and collaborated with local institutions such as Martha’s Vineyard Signs Then & Now, a project under a public access MVTV station, where they had the opportunity to interview local deaf residents, discuss the history of the deaf community with Joan Poole-Nash, the Martha’s Vineyard Sign Language Archivist, and talk about Clemson’s Creative Inquiry outreach projects on the program. They also had the chance to collaborate with the Chilmark Library and the Martha’s Vineyard Museum, whose efforts to “bridge the gap” comprise a mix of promoting historical awareness and fostering a strong and accessible community for both deaf and hearing residents through various outreach programs.

Creative Inquiry Filling in the Gaps

This year’s Creative Inquiry team consisted of six of Professor Cripps’ ASL students: Allison Rambo, Stacy Lawrence, Brie Moose, Tariq Copeland, Emerald Withers, and Cassie Fischer. Their project aimed to investigate the direct genealogy linking the Lambert and West families, expanding Lane et al.’s (2010) work on the history of the two families’ link to deaf genetics. The team used historical and genealogical sources found in the Chilmark Library, the Martha’s Vineyard Museum, and town hall in their research. They also used information from the US Census Bureau to verify genealogical connections and hearing status as well as fill in gaps in Lane et al.’s work, such as census numbers and birth/death dates. Source material from books by Alexander Graham Bell (1884) and Charles Banks (2021) was also utilized in research on the West family.

The results of their research were exhibited in a poster presentation entitled “From Lambert to West Families: Deaf Genes on Martha’s Vineyard, 1700s to 1950s” by Professor Cripps and his students at the Research Symposium at Watt Family Innovation Center on May 10, 2023.

Professor Cripps and his students present their research at the Research Symposium on May 10.

The CI team’s other outreach activities focused on interacting with residents and institutions to brainstorm and demonstrate ways to facilitate the use of signed language among community members. In one instance, students met with medical professionals from Vineyard Complementary Medicine, with whom they exchanged ideas for future sessions on learning ASL and training with deaf patients. Students also had the opportunity to teach some sign language basics by presenting “Try Your Hand at Sign Language” at Oak Bluffs Library.

Future exciting collaborations are in the works: Professor Cripps and student Allison Rambo worked with Lynn Throp, producer of MV Signs Then and Now, and Bow Van Riper, Research Librarian of the Martha’s Vineyard Museum, on a booklet highlighting the daily life and enrollment of Martha’s Vineyard deaf students at the American School of the Deaf in Hartford, Connecticut, from 1825 to 1892. The booklet will be issued later this year. Additionally, last April, Professor Cripps and several past CI students had a meeting with Bow Van Riper to discuss and brainstorm a museum exhibition about the deaf islanders. This exhibition will be opened on July 1, 2023, and continue through February 18, 2024.

ASL students present “Try Your Hand at Sign Language” at Oak Bluffs Library in Martha’s Vineyard.

Further Information and Useful Links 

For more information on Dr. Cripps and his students’ Creative Inquiry projects in Martha’s Vineyard, please see the team’s website.

For more information on the future exhibit on deaf islanders in the Martha’s Vineyard Museum, please see the museum’s website.