FINDING LANGUAGE: A WORD SCAVENGER HUNT
VANESSA DION FLETCHER
As part of a residency with Bodies In Translation (BIT), Dion Fletcher developed the performance “Finding Language: A Word Scavenger Hunt.” This performance animates Dion Fletcher’s multi-layered relationship with spoken and written languages as a Potawatomi-Lenape artist who is seeking out her traditional and disappearing Lenape language (called ‘Delaware’ by colonizers), and as someone who identifies as learning disabled. This performance begins with audio of her grandmother filling the room. The voice is telling family stories and then goes on to describe the process of getting older, becoming disabled, becoming dependent. Overlaid is audio of a child who is softly singing in what might be an Indigenous language—Lenape perhaps? As the audio ends, Dion Fletcher turns to focus on the Delaware to English, English to Delaware dictionary. As she begins to read aloud from this dictionary, it becomes clear that it offers distinctly colonial translations of the Lenape language.
With dictionary in hand, she sets out on a “word scavenger hunt” around the room. She roams the audience and the large room we are gathered in, in search of written words. As Dion Fletcher finds English words, which are plentiful, she translates them into the Lenape language using her dictionary. And the translations she finds are surprising, contentious, revealing. Take, for example, her discovery of a bag with multiple spellings of the English word “women”—“wimmin,” “womin,” “wimmyn.” Dion Fletcher slowly reads out these different spellings of the word phonetically and then turns to her dictionary. As she is thumbing her way through the English side of the dictionary in order to find the Delaware translation, she reads aloud other surrounding words: “White, white snow, be white, witch, hm.” Tension rises as the weight of colonialism fills the room. She finds the word “women” and reads aloud its related forms: “Indian woman, Delaware woman—that’s me!—white woman, schoolteacher, bad woman, good-for-nothing woman, woman with poor character […] fat woman, be a bad woman, be a good-for-nothing woman, older single woman, hm.” Tension rises again.
“Finding Language” addresses the ways that Dion Fletcher has lost her language through the imposition of settler-colonialism and struggles to orient to the language of settler-colonialism, a written language, because of the ways she delivers and receives language. In doing so, Vanessa disrupts colonialism and presents us with new understandings of disability and its meaning in the world.
Description written by Eliza Chandler