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A hearing-impaired Navajo man will perform at the Superbowl using Native American Sign Language

 Colin Denny is a research assistant at the University of Arizona. He studies Native American sign languages.
Lyle Begay
Colin Denny is a research assistant at the University of Arizona. He studies Native American sign languages.

At this year’s Superbowl, one of the performers in the pregame show will interpret America the Beautiful using American Sign Language and North American Indian Sign Language.

Colin Denny, who is Navajo, studies tribal sign languages at the University of Arizona. His advisor, Melanie McKay-Cody, recommended Denny for the performance.

“I think that he deserves it and has earned that honor,” McKay-Cody said in an article from the University of Arizona communications department. “I just thought that he would be the perfect person to be the representative and be on stage in front of millions of people.”

As a child growing up on the Navajo Nation, Colin Denny lost his hearing. It was an isolating experience.

“I became hard of hearing at the age of five,” he said. “At 13, my hearing loss progressed. I felt there was nobody like me.”

A life-changing moment came when Denny and his parents visited the Arizona State School for the Deaf and the Blind in Tucson.

“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,‘” he said.

Since then, Denny has studied communication and photography. He’s currently working on a graduate degree. His opportunity to work as a research assistant grew from a summer internship. He studied Native American sign languages with McKay-Cody at the UA Department of Disabilities and Psychoeducational Studies.

“There is no Navajo sign language,” Denny explained through a sign-language interpreter. “It’s now been reduced down to a gestural language. The tribes have their own sign languages. But I realized there was language here; there always has been language. And American Sign Language was not the first language to be here. But there’s no documentation.”

Denny hopes his Superbowl performance will raise awareness about Native sign languages.

This story was published as part of the project Voices From the Edge of the Colorado Plateau. It seeks to cover underrepresented communities in the Four Corners. KSUT provides editing and web production for the project and its stories.

Copyright 2023 Four Corners Public Radio. To see more, visit Four Corners Public Radio.

Clark Adomaitis is a Durango transplant from New York City. He is a recent graduate of the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at CUNY, where he focused on reporting and producing for radio and podcasts. He reported sound-rich stories on the state of recycling and compost in NYC.