UNMASKING THE WALAM OLUM: A 19th CENTURY HOAX
Bulletin of the Archaeological Socciety of New Jersey, No. 49 & 50
by David N. Oestericher
PART I-UNRAVELING A FRAUD: INTRODUCTION
"But time renders justice to all at last." -Constantine Samuel Rafinesque, A life of Travels
Few documents of American Indian history have evoked so much controversy, speculation, and romance as the Walam Olum or "painted record", a pictorial history of the Delaware or Lenape people. For over 150 years, ever since it was first published by Constantine Samuel Rafinesque in his book, The American Nations, (1836) scholars have been at odds about the validity of the document. Some of the Walam Olum's most ardent supporters claim it to be a "North American 'Dead Sea Scrolls'" representing the "Oldest Native North American History" with as much relevance as the Iliad or the Bible (refs ...), while skeptics have dismissed it as a fraud. Others have assumed more moderate positions, suggesting that while the Walam Olum may not be ancient or historically reliable, it is, nevertheless, an authentic example of Delaware folklore. Until now, no solid textual evidence has been advanced to support any of these opinions.
Historical Background ...
Amid all the hyperbole arises the question of how the Delaware themselves regard the Walam Olum. ... In fact, in all the extensive primary literature about the Delaware during the last four centuries there is not a single reference to the Walam Olum. (p, 2)
... The statement by the late Delaware elder Winnie Poolaw in The Red Record that "The Walam Olum is like our Bible". (McCutchen 1993:4), may well have been her opinion in 1980 after learning of its existence from McCutchen or other investigators, but in a taped interview made but five years earlier, she clearly denies ever having heard of it. (p. 2)
For a document purporting to contain the most important record of North American Indian origins-a saga which one would expect to be as revered by the Lenape as the Bible, Koran, and Upanishads are to their respective believers-the silence in the record is baffling and astonishing. (p. 2)back to top
Proclaiming that the Maalan Aarum/Walam Olum is a forgery may be premature when Oestreicher's references, evidence, and logic are investigated further.
Oestreicher left out of his references two men who had researched the Lenape and their language for many years before him:
George E. Hyde, wrote Indians of the Woodlands, 1962. Hyde used the Maalan Aarum (Walam Olum) and other oral hisgtories to describe the ancient Lenape migration from Canada through Michigan, into Ohio, where they joined the Iroquois to fight the Sioux, and then on to the east coast.
Oestreicher appatenty did not know the ancient Lenape history when he cited Ojibwa, Shawnee, Sioux, and Iroquois loan words as evidence that Rafinesque used any available Indian word to make up a story (#49 p. 8)
A more viable hypothesis for those same loan words is that they were learned by the Lenape during decades of interaction with the named tribes. Thus the Maalan Aarum (Walam Olum) appears to be valid ancient history.
Reider T. Sherwin wrote The Viking and the Red Man in eight voumes from 1940 through 1954. Sherwin, who knew an Old Norse dialect, focused on the Algonquin Language. His eight volumes contain more than 15,000 comparisons between Algonquin "words" and Old Norse phrases. Sherwin believed the Walam Olum was in the Old Norse language, with the title morphed from "Maalan Aarum," meaning "engraved years."
A reader familiar with Sherwin can observe that Oestricher used modern Lenape definitions to condemn Rafinesque's use of many words. But Old Norse definitions for the same words are strong evidence that Rafinesque was trying to faithfully translate the confusing text he had.
Using Sherwin's comparisons of Algonquin, Old Norse, and English to translate the Maalan Aarum (Walam Olum) was conceived as an independent test of its validity.
Strong positive testimony was found in the first verse of Chapter 3. All the Maalan Aarum (Walam Olum) words could be found in Sherwin's Algonquin listing. The associated Old Norse words sounded similar. The English meaning was similar.
But, in the first line, an equivalent word for "rushing waters" was not there. An intensive search of Sherwin's eight volumes looking for "rushing waters" in English, finally paid off. The companion Algonquin word was noted. The equivalent Old Norse word was shown in a phrase with words in front and behind. Those front and behind words sounded similar to the visible Maalan Aarum (Walam Olum) words. Somewhere, in over sixteen (16) generations of oral history, the Maalan Aarum word for "rushing water" went missing!
The Maalan Aarum can be restored using Sherwin's comparisons.
Because the Maalan Aarum can be translated with a historic language, the Walam Olum is a hisotric document.
Indian Loan words are testimony that the Maalan Aarum describes the history miagration of the Lenape.
Based on the evidence, Rafinesque is not guilty of a forgery.
Paine, 2006back to top
Oestreicher would like you to believe "in all the extensive primary literature about the Delaware during the last four centuries there is not a single reference to the Walam Olum." By "primary," I assume he meant Indian writing. But Oestreicher listed Brinton in the bibliography. Brinton, in his book, The Lenâpé and their Legends, cites two Indian writers:
On page 88 Brinton cites that in Moraviantown, on Sept. 26, 1884, Gottrieb Tobias wrote in his language, which said, when translated to English, "...And some [of the Walam Olum] I understand, and some not, because his [the Walam Olum's author] language is called Wonalatoko, half Unami and half another language." One old woman said she understood it, because she had learned a more difficult dialect as a child.
On page 156 Brinton wrote that Rev Albert Anthony, a well educated native Delaware, was equally conversant with his own language and with English. "Mr. Anthony considered the subject [Walam Olum] fully, and concluded by expressing the positive opinion that the text as given was a genuine oral composition of a Delaware Indian."
A man creating a hoax would have a difficult time writing poems that would be considered oral compositions of a Lenape speaker who was using two dialects. Brinton makes that arguement.
Oestreicher, who, by family and tribal viewpoints, was opposed to the Maalan Aarum (Walam Olum) validity at the start of his research, apparently did not read all of the books he cited. If he had, he would have encountered Brinton's argument for the Maalan Aarum (Walam Olum). The argument was not answered.back to top
Oestreicher used questionable logic. Just because Winnie Poolaw, or any other Lenape, did not know of the Maalan Aarum (Walam Olum) before a white man showed it to her does not mean the original sticks and verses deciphered from 1820 to 1834 were hoaxes. It does mean that Winnie Poolaw, and most Lenape, did not learn of the Maalan Aarum through tribal stories or by English history classes.
The group of the original Maalan Aarum sticks may be the combined effort from two Lenape historians in two different tribes. If so, the circumstances that caused one tribal historian to pass his sticks to an historian of another tribe must have been very distressing. "Distressing circumstances" describes the situation of the Indians in the Indiana and Ohio region during the war of 1812 up through the Black Hawk war. During the 1812 war, Algonquins were encouraged by both the English and the Americans to fight each other. After the war, despite treaties, white people over ran the Ohio River lands. Although peace treaties abounded, the threat of war prevailed.
The old Lenape historian who passed his sticks onto a white doctor in 1820 must have been suffering from distressing circumstances. Whatever happened in that chaotic period, once the sticks were given to a white doctor and were not claimed by the close family or tribe, Lenape telling of their story was finished.
The question is not: Did Lenape know about the Maalan Aarum (Walam Olum) before white people told them? It is: Were circumstances so chaotic for the Lenape in 1820 that a tribe was forced to leave behind an old historian and never return? Perhaps, because events in a chaotic land were building toward the Black Hawk War.
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