Deaf 2023 Super Bowl performers make history signing in ASL and North American Indian Sign Language: 'Truly lifting every voice'

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Troy Kotsur, Justina Miles and Colin Denny perform in American Sign Language and Plains Indian Sign Language at the Super Bowl LVII pregame show at State Farm Stadium in Glendale, Ariz., on Sunday.

Country superstar Chris Stapleton, 12-time Grammy winner Babyface and Emmy-winning actress-singer Sheryl Lee Ralph all performed on Sunday at State Farm Stadium in Glendale, Ariz., ahead of the Super Bowl LVII showdown between the Philadelphia Eagles and the Kansas City Chiefs. But three other performers — Oscar-winning CODA actor Troy Kotsur, deaf Navajo scholar Colin Denny and deaf TikTok sensation Justina Miles — nearly stole the (pre)show with historic appearances that set a new standard for inclusivity at the big game.

On the YouTube TV "Pre-Kick" show, Babyface’s lovely, live and refreshingly un-Auto-Tuned rendition of “America the Beautiful,” played on a star-spangled acoustic guitar “in celebration of our country,” was signed by Denny in both American Sign Language (ASL) and Plains Indian Sign Language (PISL) — one of the most documented regional variations of North American Indian Sign Language and a “lingua franca” used by both deaf and hearing people to communicate between tribes. In a statement to the University of Arizona, Denny, a research assistant at that school’s College of Education, explained: “A lot of people aren't aware of [North American Indian Sign Language] and that it has always been here, even if we don't see it. That's something I feel needs national recognition and revitalization for the community.”

While Denny was unfortunately barely shown in the camera cutaways during Babyface’s televised performance, the incorporation of North American Indian Sign Language into this year’s Super Bowl pregame festivities was still seen by many as a positive and corrective response to the NFL’s long, and increasingly under fire, history of appropriating Native American culture and iconography. Meanwhile, also on Super Bowl Sunday, the organization Arizona to Rally Against Native Mascots continued to protest outside State Farm Stadium against the Chiefs’ name, logo, “tomahawk chop” hand gesture and mascot pinto horse, Warpaint.

“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 told the University of Arizona ahead of Sunday’s game. “I want them to see me on that stage and see that I'm representing them.”

Also during the pregame show, Kotsur, who won the Best Supporting Actor Academy Award in 2022 (becoming the first deaf man and second deaf person overall to receive an acting Oscar), signed in ASL to Stapleton’s fiery and soulful take on the national anthem. Deaf actress Marlee Matlin, who won an Oscar for her landmark 1986 Children of a Lesser God performance, tweeted ahead of the Super Bowl urging her fans to tune in.

Twenty-year-old Miles, whose participation in TikTok’s #crushonyouchallenge went viral in 2020 after it was reposted by Lil’ Kim, accompanied Ralph’s performance of “Lift Every Voice and Sing.” At an NFL press conference Thursday, Miles called that latter song, which is known as the Black national anthem, “inspiring, empowering and representative of resilience,” and said its inclusion at Super Bowl LVII was important “not only for me to share this experience with the whole world, but to really bring that empowerment to millions and millions of Black deaf people all over the country who’ve never really seen that before. I feel that is truly lifting every voice, even my voice.”

Miles is also scheduled to sign in ASL to Rihanna’s much-anticipated halftime performance, making her the first female deaf performer to participate in a Super Bowl halftime show. (Last year marked the first time that ASL performers were featured in the halftime show, when deaf musicians Warren “Wawa” Snipe and Sean Forbes appeared alongside Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg, Eminem, Mary J. Blige, Kendrick Lamar, 50 Cent and Anderson .Paak.) In her NFL press conference interview, Miles said, “I value the opportunity to make it possible for all deaf people to enjoy these songs and not have them miss out on the full Super Bowl experience.”

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