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Walam Olum pictograph
The Walam Olum, usually translated as "Red Record" or "Red Score", is purportedly a historical narrative of the Lenape (also called "Delaware") Native Americans. The document has provoked controversy as to its authenticity since its publication in the 1830s by botanist and antiquarian Constantine Samuel Rafinesque. Ethnographic studies in the 1980s and analysis in the 1990s of Rafinesque's manuscripts have produced significant evidence that the document is a hoax. Some Delaware people, however, believe Rafinesque based his writing on actual Lenape stories.

The work

In 1836 in his first volume of The American Nations, Rafinesque published what he represented as an English translation of the entire text of the Walam Olum, as well as a portion in the Lenape language. The Walam Olum includes a creation myth, a deluge myth, and the narrative of a series of migrations. Rafinesque and others claimed or interpreted the migrations to have begun in Asia. The text included a long list of chiefs' names, which appears to provide a timescale for the epic. According to Rafinesque, the chiefs appeared as early as 1600 BCE.


Rafinesque claimed the original narrative was recorded in pictographs on birch bark, or cedar wood tablets or sticks (Rafinesque explained that "Olum... implies a record, a notched stick, an engraved piece of wood or bark.") He said a Dr. Ward "of Indiana" acquired the materials in 1820 from the Lenape in return for a medical cure. Ward passed the materials on to Rafinesque. But, Rafinesque's personal notes indicated that Dr. Ward lived in Kentucky. He said the explanatory transcription of verses in the Lenape language came from a different source, in 1822.

When Rafinesque wrote an essay on the Lenape language in October 1834, he did not mention the Walam Olum at all. It was two months later that he submitted a supplement about it. This was shortly after he acquired a list of authentic Lenape names compiled by John Heckewelder. Rafinesque's translation of the 183 verses totals fewer than 3,000 words. In his manuscript he juxtaposed the pictographs with the verses in Lenape language that explained them. This material is now held at the University of Pennsylvaniamarker. Any items in Rafinesque's large collection of specimens which did not find a ready sale after his death were apparently destroyed. There is no evidence other than Rafinesque's testimony that the original sticks existed. Scholars have only his work to study.

Twentieth-century archaeology has confirmed that by Rafinesque's time, Native Americans had been using birch bark scrolls for over 200 years. In 1965 the archaeologist Kenneth Kidd reported on two finds of "trimmed and fashioned pieces of birch bark on which have been scratched figures of animals, birds, men, mythological creatures, and esoteric symbols" in the Head-of-the-Lakes region of Ontariomarker. Some of these resembled scrolls used by the Mide Society of the Ojibwa A scroll from one of these finds was later dated to about 1560+/-70 CE.

The Walam Olum in the 19th century

While there was controversy about the Walam Olum, it was treated as an accurate account by historians, anthropologists, and archaeologists for many years. Ephraim G. Squier, widely regarded as an influential figure of American 19th-century archaeology, republished the text in 1849. He accepted it as genuine, partially on internal evidence but also because George Copway, to whom he showed the manuscript, "did not hesitate in declaring the symbols, the accompanying translations in Delaware, and the general ideas transmitted in the narrative to be authentic," and stated that Rafinesque's translation was accurate. More recent scholars have noted that Copway was "not an expert on the traditions and language of the Delaware." Not all scholars accepted Rafinesque's account. As early as 1849, Henry Rowe Schoolcraft wrote to Squier that he believed the document might be fraudulent.

In 1885, the well-known ethnologist Daniel G. Brinton published a new translation of the text. Brinton explained, "In several cases the figures or symbols appear to me to bear out the corrected translations which I have given of the lines, and not that of Rafinesque. This, it will be observed, is an evidence, not merely that he must have received this text from other hands, but the figures also, and weighs heavily in favor of the authentic character of both."(Brinton, Page 157)

The Walum Olum in the 20th century

In the 1930s, Erminie Voegelin attempted to find evidence of Walam Olum narrative elements in independent Lenni-Lenape and Delaware sources; the parallels were at best inconclusive. Doubts about the text's authenticity began to grow. In 1952 renowned archaeologist James Bennett Griffin publicly announced that he “had no confidence in the 'Walam Olum'.” Historian William A. Hunter also believed the text a hoax. In 1954 archaeologist John G. Witthoft found linguistic inaccuracies and suspicious correspondences of words in the texts to 19th-century Lenape-English word lists. He concluded that Rafinesque composed the narrative from Lenape texts already in print. The following year, he announced in the Journal of American Linguistics the start of a Walam Olum project for further study, but this project did not take place.

In 1954, a multidisciplinary team of scholars from the Indiana Historical Societymarker published another translation and commentary. They stated, "The 'Red Score' is a worthy subject for students of aboriginal culture." A reviewer noted that the team were not able to identify Dr. Ward, and he concluded that the document's origins "are undeniably clouded." Anthropologist Della Collins Cook commented on the 1954 study, "The scholarly essays are best read as exercises in stating one's contradictory conclusions in a manner designed to give as little offense as possible to one's sponsor." Other translations and commentaries have followed, including translations into languages other than English.

Selwyn Dewdney, art educator and researcher into Ojibway art and anthropology, wrote the only comprehensive study of the Ojibwa birchbark scrolls (wiigwaasabakoon). In it he wrote: "A surviving pictographic record on wood, preserved by the Algonquian-speaking Delaware long after they had been shifted from their original homeland on Atlanticmarker shores at the mouth of the Delaware River, offers evidence of how ancient and widespread is the myth of a flood (see Deluge involving a powerful water manito. The record is known as the Walum Olum (Painted Sticks), and was interpreted for George Copway by a Delaware Elder... Apart from the reference to man's moral wickedness, the mood and imagery of the Walum Olum convey an archaic atmosphere that surely predates European Influence." A review of his study by the anthropologist Edward S Rogers states "Dewdney is apt to rely upon ethnographic generalizations that were in vogue a quarter of a century ago, but in the intervening years have been modified or disproven...Dewdney handles ethnohistorical matters no better than he does ethnographic topics...Dewdney has deceived the unwary who do not realize that the exact distributions and certain proposed migrations of Ojibwa still remain unresolved. A final word, but one that is of paramount importance, must be voiced. How will the Ojibwa react to this book? Most likely, negatively, from the few comments received to date. The fact that "Sacred" information is being divulged will be resented."

Kentucky-based writer Joe Napora wrote a modern translation of the text which was published in 1992. At the time he thought the Walam Olum was genuine. In his preface, he wrote, "My belief is that the Walam Olum is closely related to the Mide Scrolls that Dewdney wrote so eloquently about in 'Sacred Scrolls of the Ojibway'.".

By the 1980s, however, ethnologists had collected enough independent information "to discount the Walam olum completely as a tradition". Herbert C. Kraft, an expert on the Lenape, had long suspected the document to be a fraud. He stated that it did not square with the archaeological record of migrations by the prehistoric ancestors of the Lenape. In addition, he cited a 1985 survey conducted among Lenape elders by ethnologists David M. Oestreicher and James Rementer that revealed traditional Lenape had never heard of the narrative. In 1991 Steven Williams summarized the history of the case and the evidence against the document, lumping it with many other famous archaeological frauds. The existence of genuine historic pictogram documents elsewhere does not overcome the textual and ethnological problems of the Walam Olum.

The Walam Olum since 1994

In 1994, and afterwards, textual evidence that the Walam Olum was a hoax was supplied by David M. Oestreicher in “Unmasking the Walam Olum: A 19th Century Hoax.” Oestreicher examined Rafinesque's original manuscript and "found it replete with crossed-out Lenape words that had been replaced with others that better matched his English 'translation.' In other words, Rafinesque had been translating from English to Lenape, rather than the other way round". In general, he found a variety of evidence that the Walam Olum was not an authentic historical record but was composed by someone having only a slight familiarity with the Lenape language. Oestreicher argued that Rafinesque crafted the linguistic text from specific sources on the Delaware Language published by the American Philosophical Society and elsewhere. Further, he said that the supposedly “Lenape” pictographs were hybrids from published Egyptianmarker, Chinesemarker, and Mayan sources.

Barnhart concurs, stating that "the pictographs are in no way comparable to the figures found on the stone carvings or petroglyphs found in Lenapehoking, the traditional homeland of the Lenape.(Barton:140) David Oestreicher asserted that the stories were a conglomerate assembled from numerous sources from different cultures that spanned the globe. He believed that Rafinesque created the Walam Olum in hopes of winning the international Prix Volney contest hosted in Parismarker. He also wanted to prove his long-held theories regarding the peopling of America. Oestreicher’s findings were summarized by Herbert Kraft in his study, The Lenape-Delaware Indian Heritage: 10,000 BC to AD 2000.

Later David Oestreicher wrote that he had received a direct communication from Joe Napora. The latter wrote, "[H]e now recognises that the 'Walam Olum' is indeed a hoax...and was dismayed that the sources upon whom he relied had been so negligent in their investigation of the document and that the hoax should have been continued as long as it has".

A recent biography of Rafinesque concluded: "There is now very good reason to believe that he fabricated important data and documents...The most egregious example is the Lenni Lenape migration saga, 'Walam Olum', which has perplexed scholars for one and a half centuries. Rafinesque wrote the 'Walam Olum' believing it to be authentic because it accorded with his own belief—he was merely recording and giving substance to what must be true. It was a damaging, culpably dishonest act, which misled scholars in search of the real truth, far more damaging than his childish creations, which could be easily dismissed; this was more than mischief."

Many traditional Lenape believe they have lived in their homeland (that is, in the New Jersey/Pennsylvania/New York City area) forever. The Delaware Tribe of Eastern Oklahoma originally endorsed the document but withdrew their endorsement on February 11 1997 after reviewing the evidence. The Lenape Nation of Pennsylvania emphasize their belief that they have been in the area for 10,000 years.. Whilst concluding that the burden of proof lies on those who believe the Walam Olum to be authentic, Barnhart states that "whatever one's position on the 'Walam Olum', its controversial place in the history of American anthropology is most definitively secured." ( p. 149)

See also


  1. Lenape Nation: Lenape Culture, Native Languages
  2. Brinton, Daniel G. (1885) The Lenâpé and their Legends: With the Complete Text and Symbols of the Walam Olum
  3. Oestreicher, David M. (1996) "Unraveling the Walam Olum", Natural History 105 (10):14–21. (also revised version in Boewe, 2003)
  4. Kidd, Kenneth E. 1965. "Birch-bark Scrolls in Archaeological Contexts", American Antiquity, Vol 30. No 4. page 480.
  5. Rajnovich, Grace Reading Rock Art: Interpreting the Indian Rock Paintings of the Canadian Shield. Dundurn Press Ltd., 1994, ISBN ISBN 0920474721
  6. Barnhart, Terry A. 2005. "Ephraim George Squier and the Development of American Anthropology", Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, ISBN 978-0803213210 - searchable at Amazon, pp130-131
  7. Daniel Garrison Brinton, Constantine Samuel Rafinesque. 1885 The Lenâpé and Their Legends: With the Complete Text and Symbols of the Walam Olum. A New Translation, and an inquiry into its authenticity. Searchable at [1]
  8. Voegelin, Erminie W. 1939 "Cultural parallels to the Delaware Walam Olum", Proceedings of the Indiana Academy of science, vol. 49, pp. 28-31
  9. Witthoft, John, 1955. "The Walam Olum Project", International Journal of American Linguistics Vol. 21, p194.
  10. Buikstra, Jane & Beck, Lane (eds). Bioarchaeology: The Contextual Analysis of Human Remains, Academic Press (2006) ISBN 978-0123695413
  11. Dewdney, Selwyn. 1975. The Sacred Scrolls of the Southern Ojibway. Glenbow Museum & U. Of Toronto Press. p. 128
  12. Rogers, Edward S., Ethnohistory, Vol. 22, No. 1, (Winter, 1975), pp. 81-85
  13. Napora, Joe. 1992. The Walam olum / as translated by Joe Napora. Greenfield Center, N.Y. : Greenfield Review Press. ISBN 0912678828. p1
  14. Vansina, Jan Oral Tradition as History Oxford, James Currey (1985) ISBN 0852550073, pp54-55
  15. "Lenape Expert Assails Phone Flier", New York Times online
  16. "Archaeological Society of New Jersey Lifetime Achievement Award"
  17. Williams, Steven. 1991. Fantastic Archaeology: The Wild Side of North American Prehistory. University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia.
  18. Oestreicher, David M. 2005. "Tale of a Hoax", The Algonquian Spirit, ed. Brian Swann. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, ISBN 978-0803293380 - searchable at Amazon, pp23-24
  19. Warren, Leonard. 2005. Constantine Samuel Rafinesque: A Voice in the American Wilderness. Lexington, KY: University Press of Kentucky, May 2005, ISBN 978-0813123165 searchable at Amazon
  20. Lenape Nation - A Tribal Community

Further reading

1985."A Note on Rafinesque, the Walam Olum, the Book of Mormon, and the Mayan Glyphs", Numen, Vol. 32, Fasc. 1 pp. 101-113.
. 2003. Profiles of Rafinesque. University of Tennessee Press. Knoxville, TN.
1965. "Birch-bark Scrolls in Archaeological Contexts", American Antiquity. Vol 30. No 4. page 480.
1990. "The Lenape: Archaeology, History, and Ethnology", American Indian Quarterly, Vol. 14, pp. 421–22.
2002. The Lenape/Delaware Heritage: 10,000 B.C.–2000 A.D., Lenape Books.
. 1995. "The Red Record: The 'Walam Olum', Translated and Annotated by David McCutchen." Book Review, North American Archaeologist 16(3):281–85.
2000. The Prix Volney: Volume II: Early Nineteenth-Century Contributions to American Indian and General Linguistics: Du Ponceau and Rafinesque, Springer, ISBN 978-0792325062, searchable at [286748]
1957. Walam Olum, 1, 17: "A Proof of Rafinesque’s Integrity", American Anthropologist. New Series Vol. 59. No 4. Aug 1957. pp. 705-708. Blackwell Publishing, on behalf of the American Anthropological Association
(illus. Lingen, Ruth). 1983. The Walam Olum / translation. Madison, Wis., Landlocked Press. (Liimited edition, 100 copies)
1994. "Unmasking the Walam Olum: A 19th Century Hoax", Bulletin of the Archaeological Society of New Jersey 49:1–44.
1995a. The Anatomy of the Walam Olum: A 19th Century Anthropological Hoax. Ph.D. dissertation, Rutgers University. New Brunswick, New Jersey. Reprint Edition, University Microfilms International, Ann Arbor, Michigan.
1995b. "Text Out of Context: The Arguments that Created and Sustained the Walam Olum", Bulletin of the Archaeological Society of New Jersey 50:31–52.
1997. Reply to Harry Monesson Regarding the Walam Olum, Bulletin of the Archaeological Society of New Jersey 52:98–99.
2000. In Search of the Lenape: The Delaware Indians Past and Present. Catalogue of exhibition, Scarsdale Historical Society. Scarsdale Historical Society, Scarsdale New York. [First published by Scarsdale Historical Society, 1995].
2002a. "The European Roots of the Walam Olum: Constantine Samuel Rafinesque and the Intellectual Heritage of the early 19th Century", in New Perspectives on the Origins of American Archaeology, Ed. Stephen Williams and David Browman. The University of Alabama Press.
2002b. The Algonquian of New York. The Rosen Publishing Group’s Power Kid’s Press. New York, NY.
1836. The American Nations; or, Outlines of a National History; of the Ancient and Modern Nations of North and South America. Philadelphia.

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