Sawmill Workers Use Unique Sign Language To “Talk” On Noisy Mill Floor

By Trevor Keller | September 5, 2019


Sawmills are loud places. Menominee Tribal Enterprises in Neopit is no exception. Talking across the mill floor is nearly impossible because of the noise. That’s why for more than a century, the workers in this mill carry on conversations in a different way. They created their own sign language.

It’s not based on American Sign Language or Menominee language. It’s an entirely unique system used only by people in this sawmill. Joe Besaw started at the mill in the 1980s before moving into the sales department. He says sign language is crucial to communicate on the floor. “If you didn’t know that sign language, I mean, you know, you’d have a hard time up there. So the guys learn fast,” says Besaw.

Leroy Shawanokasic is the sawmill supervisor. He makes sure that quality and safety standards are being met. Shawanokasic tells the machine operators what adjustments they need to be made so the lumber is cut correctly. He motions with his hands demonstrating the sign language. “When you go like that, that means you’re cutting snaky lumber or thick and thin, scratchy lumber, wedging lumber. And they’ll know what to do,” he says.

It’s believed that this sign language has been around since the mill’s inception in 1908. It was created for work, but it’s evolved into something more. “You can talk about what you did last night. It can talk about what you’re going to do with this weekend,” says Besaw.

Besaw says the sign language has become part of everyday life at the mill. “If you talk with some of the guys on the reservation here, you’ll notice that their hand gestures as they’re telling a story sometime,” Besaw says, “They kind of do it unconsciously. They’re talking, “I shot at that deer. He went down, and we ran,” you know? And you see their hands going all over, and a lot of that came right from our sawmill here.”

Trevor Keller

Trevor Keller

Trevor Keller is Executive Producer of “Wisconsin Life” for PBS Wisconsin. He loves photography and is always looking for a new Wisconsin park, trail or scenic overlook to explore.

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