Wednesday, November 16, 2011

More About the Walam Olum

In my last post I conceded that the Walam Olum (also known by other spellings) is not regarded as an authentic Delaware or Lenape document by most scholars. And given that document's history, we'll never know its exact origins.

However, a long-neglected scholarly article that appeared in the Texas Journal of Science in 1955 explains that the content of Constantine Samuel Rafinesque's 1836 translation could have come from Delaware spiritual leaders in the late decades of the 1700's. The article, "The Walum Olum of the Delaware Indians in Perspective," was written by William Newcomb Jr. and appeared on pages 57 - 63 of volume 7 of the Texas Journal of Science.

Although a Google search will take you to a number of articles that conclude the Walam Olum is a fraud (see my previous post), Newcomb's article is not available online. However, this is no reflection of any lack of scholarship on his part. Therefore, I will use his research to explain to you why the content of the Walam Olum may come from authentic Delaware voices dating long before Rafinesque's translation was ever published.

Newcomb's general opening comments are also relevant to Algonkian Church History:

The Walam Olum consisted of a creation myth, a deluge [flood] myth, and what purported to be the subsequent history of the tribe. The mythology was consistent with Algonquian mythology in general....(page 57).

(On the other hand, Newcomb concludes that the Walam Olum's account of historic Delaware migrations was not consistent with that described by observers like Heckewelder and Zeisberger.)

Anyway, Newcomb sets the stage for the Walam Olum by telling us that by about "1750 prophets and messiahs began to appear among the Delware, and they continued to appear sporadically until 1812 (page 59)." According to the prophets, proper ritual action among the Delaware people would reverse the trend of cultural disintegration and collapse that white contact had brought about.

The earliest and most successful prophet, of whom we have knowledge, was known as the Delaware Prophet or the Imposter. His career reached its zenith about 1762 (Peckham, 1947:98; Heckewelder, 1881; 293). This man had received in a vision instructions from the Great Spirit on how to restore his people to their former state.... His teachings were made concrete by a number of symbolic figures painted on a tanned deer hide. Replicas of this map were made, some on paper, and were sold by the Delaware prophet. Some of the purchasers in turn seem to have become minor prophets (Heckewelder, 1881: 293). Parkham (1910; 215) recounted Pontiac as saying, however, that: 'A prayer, embodying the substance of all that [the prophet] had heard, was then presented to the Delaware. It was cut in hieroglyphics upon a wooden stick, after the custom of his people; and he was directed to send copies of it to all the Indian villages'(page 60).

Newcomb concludes that both Heckewelder's account and Parkham's quoting of Pontiac "are correct" and he notes that the period in which prophets existed among the Delaware Indians coincides with the period of time in which the Walam Olum "might well have been produced"(page 60).

Bottom line: "The Delaware were acutely conscious of their past and were desperately trying to revive it." So Newcomb concludes that it would be perfectly "natural" or even "inevitable" that

some Delaware, perhaps one of the prophets, would symbolize by pictographic recordthe traditional myths and legends of his people? The myths and legends would, of course, be based upon or derived from, the traditional tales, but the emphasis and perhaps even their content would be changed to suit the conditions of the age (page 61).

I think that today's scholars are making a mistake when they are dismissive of the Walam Olum. On the other hand, some people who claim to be well-educated have tried to prove that specific things happened hundreds of years ago based on the Walam Olum. That is probably a much bigger mistake.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

The Walum Olum: Authentic or Fake?

The image you see below is an artist's interpretation that borrows heavily from the Walum Olum. This particular pictograph and the words that go with it illustrates a creation story that is similar in some ways to the creation story in the Book of Genesis.

First of all, what is the Walum Olum?

The necessary background is provided in this quote from Steven C. Harper (page 18):

In 1822 an eccentric natural history professor at Transylvania College, Constantine S. Rafinesque, reportedly inherited a pictographic Lenape history, the "Walum Olum," from a mysterious Dr. Ward, who received it for treating Delawares in Indiana. Rafinesque learned Lenape from the dictionaries of Moravian missionaries and translated the "Walum Olum" which he published in 1836.

In recent years the Walum Olum (sometimes known as the Red Record) has also been published on the Sacred Texts website.

The Walum Olum comes up occasionally in my research and I've noticed that while some have claimed it to be a fraud, others quote from it as if it is an ultimate authority. Well, which is it?

An authentic sacred text or a fraud? The answer is.....

The same as the answer to many historical questions: we don't know for sure.

I'm going to have to admit that most people think it is a fake. For evidence on that see the Archaeology Magazine website. According to that site the Walum Olum is "Hokum."

So it goes without saying that the Walum Olum - by itself - should not be used to prove things. (Unfortunately, this is being done by people who claim to be educated.)

I consider the Walum Olum to possibly be authentic based on what I read today in Steven C. Harper's book. The rest of this post is based on a few things that Harper has to say.

One of the best known historians of the Delaware people, C. A. Weslager "admired [the Walum Olum's] consistency with archaeological and ethnographical accounts" (according to Harper, page 19, this was covered in pages 77-79 of Weslager's Delaware Indians).

Of course, just because it gives an accurate picture of the Delaware people doesn't mean that it was created by the Delawares before white contact as some claim.

Could the Walum Olum possibly be an ancient text?

[This paragraph was written on November 15th, 2011]
My reading of Steven Harper (I borrowed his book and no longer have access to it) led me to believe that the Walum Olum might possibly be an ancient text. However, the only evidence Harper gives of this is a 1955 article in the Texas Journal of Science. I have a copy of that article and it will be the topic of my next post.


Harper, Steven C. (2006) Promised Land: Penn's Holy Experiment, the Walking Purchase, and the Dispossession of the Delawares, 1600 - 1763. Bethlehem, PA: Lehigh University Press.

Newcomb, William W. Jr., "The Walum Olum of the Delaware Indians in Perspective," Texas Journal of Science, Volume 7 (1955), pages 57-63.

Weslager, Clinton A. (1972) The Delaware Indians: A History. Bruunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

ACH Book Recommendation: Chief Bender's Burden by Tom Swift

Even if you are a baseball fan, you might not have heard of Charles Albert "Chief" Bender. In fact, I doubt that many of today's baseball fans know much about the so-called "deadball era."

In those days, Connie Mack's Philadelphia Athletics (or "A's") were regular participants in the World Series. The team featured the then-famous $100,000 infield (a lot of money to pay four players back then) and two Hall of Fame pitchers, Eddie Plank and "Chief" Bender, a White Earth Anishinaabeg from Minnesota.

Strip away the baseball content from this book and you have pretty much the same theme as Algonkian Church History: Indians denied their native ways took on white ways - and, for the most part, they succeeded in doing so. On the other hand, the title: Chief Bender's Burden: The Silent Struggle of a Baseball Star is spot-on.

Tom Swift researched Bender's life carefully and found that he volunteered to attend Carlisle. As you may know, there were times when Indian children were rounded up and forced to leave their parents. But after finishing up at one boarding school, Charles Albert ran away from home and was glad to see the "recruiters" from Carlisle. Unfortunately, Bender went to boarding school willingly after literally getting kicked by his father (who, I should probably mention, was white). Whatever role Bender's mother had in his upbringing was pretty much summed up by the fact that she didn't have much of a connection with Chalres Albert.

Later it was the manager and part owner of the Philadelphia A's, Connie Mack, who became a father figure to his young star pitcher. I enjoyed reading about some of the aspects of baseball then that are very different from how things are today. How did fans follow the scores back then? I'll give you a hint, they weren't sent to your Blackberry or reported on ESPN's Sportscenter, I'll let you get the real answer from the book.

Anyway, Swift pulled up a bunch of reports or stories about things that may or may not have happened. My favorite, if true, could have been the reason why 1914 was Bender's last season in an A's uniform:

[Mack] sent Bender, his bright pitcher with the eagle eyes, to New York to scout the Boston Braves. But, according to one version of the story, while Bender was supposedly in New York, Mack ran into him on a Philadelphia street corner.

"I thought you had gone to look over the Braves," Mack said.

Bender shrugged him off. "What's the use of wasting a perfectly good afternoon looking at a bunch of bush league hitters?" (page 209)
For more, see the book's page on the University of Nebraska Press' website.

You can buy the book and read several reviews at