Thursday, August 23, 2012

The Red Record: The Wallum Olum: Oldest Native North American History (???)

Book Review: The Red Record: The Wallum Olum: The Oldest Native North American History – translated and annotated by David McCutchen (Avery Publishing Group 1989)

Before I read this book and began the review – I was unaware of the disputed authenticity of the Wallum Olam.

At first glance, this is a remarkable and apparently not well-known hieroglyphic and written/oral history of the Lenni Lenape, or Delaware tribe. This history would include the history of all Algonquian-language family tribes stretching from Western Canada to the Atlantic. The Delawares, or Lenape, are often called the “grandfathers” so they are perhaps the history-keepers of this whole lineage. The author presents some interesting supporting data to the migrational history which is recounted here. He not only utilizes the Wallum Olum itself but also legends and known histories of the Delaware and their many relative tribes, such as the Shawnee and Ojibwe (Chippewa) as well as legends from other tribes.

It is stated that the Wallum Olum is the only surviving pre-Columbian written history north of Mexico. The author mentions that the Natchez tribe of Mississippi (possibly the remnants of the Talega, or mound-builders, driven southward) were also said to have a written history and lineage of kings until it was destroyed by the French in the mid-1700’s. The Wallum Olum is written in both words and in symbols. The symbols resemble some current Algonquian symbols.

The author lists the story of the circumstances of the discovery of this document and how the document supposedly came into the hands of Constantine Samuel Rafinesque circa 1830’s. There is now good evidence that this document is a fraud perpetrated by Rafinesque. The whole story can be accessed through the Wiki article. Apparently, this book by McCutcheon and the authenticity of the Wallum Olam were both endorsed by Lenape elders as it had been for the most part for 150 years – but not without some controversy.  But in the late 1990’s there was detailed ethnographic analysis done on Rafinesque’s original manuscripts and it was determined that Rafinesque conceived and presented it as an elaborate hoax. Crazy ideas about mound-builders and ancient Native Americans abounded in the 1800’s. Much of it centered on the Lost Tribes of Israel and in vogue arrogant notions that the ignorant natives that we are rightfully subjugating could not have produced works of art of this caliber. Rafinesque may have had other motives. He did present a migration scheme that has some plausibility. He also presented the migrating tribes encounters with moundbuilder cultures – specifically those at Cahokia Mound area near St. Louis. He depicted their migration from Siberia. These ideas may have been promoted by Rafinesque as a way to substantiate his own ideas of Native American migration – several of which are considered correct these days, generally speaking. One interesting thing is that linguistics confirms that proto-Algic and proto-Algonquin languages proceded from west to east across Canada and later southward to the Ohio Valley.  It is also now widely thought that these central Algonquians such as the Ojibwe, Shawnee, Miami, Potatomi, and others may be the descendents of the Adena-Hopewell aged moundbuilding cultures.

Hoaxes of this sort fill the archaeological theories of 1800’s North America. Belief in the origins of humans from biblical ideas and the flood of Noah was still considered scientifically valid at the time. Some people still choose to believe in the authenticity of the Wallum Olum but most certainly as the Wiki article reads – the burden of proof is on them. After the spread of serious doubt through scientific analysis in the late 90’s the Lenape elders officially withdrew their endorsement of the record.

Some of the ethnological proof of hoax has to do with Rafinesque’s notes regarding the Algonquian language. Recently, I learned of the similarities of the accounts to Joseph Smith’s Book of Mormon. One fellow in an on-line group in which I participate thinks that Rafinesque was Jewish but sought to hide that fact and perpetrated the whole thing as a clever parody of the Book of Mormon - which apparently is known to have anti-Semitic sentiments. Rafinesque was brilliant, a child prodigy, a master of languages, and known to be rather eccentric. He was also broke. In any case, I did enjoy reading the book. When I read it, of course, I took it in good faith that the text was authentic. Now I see the evidence in favor of hoax and the lack of evidence in favor of authenticity.

The author, McCutcheon presents facets of the text, the hieroglyphs, migration patterns, and the list of chiefs that can seem quite plausible. He also constructed many maps that support the stories of places in the text. He also managed to integrate lore from the many scattered Algonquian-speaking tribes. All this interweaving gives the book a sense of plausibility. Even so, the evidence that it is hoax is very strong. Algonquian peoples did and do have a system or systems of glyphic characters. They were known to carve glyphs on trees which fade rather quickly and there are many petroglyphs considered to be Algonquian all over North America. I have seen and read about many. The story in the Wallum Olam is that they were carved and painted on birchwood, buried to keep them preserved, then recopied every so many years by lore keepers – the first lorekeeper known as “history man.” The dedication of such lore keepers over many centuries – about 1600 years – using this method would have had to be immense, never being deterred by the turmoils of the times. Yes there are many reasons that this is almost certainly a hoax. Archaeology is full of hoaxes and that of the Moundbuilders especially so. This is likely one among many. It is unfortunate that people are misled but it happens.

Now I guess I will have to see if I can find some Algonquian lore that is more authentic. This lore interests me for a few reasons. One is that these people (from the Algonquian language group) were most numerous in the areas which I live and work. They also have interesting petroglyphs, lore, and shamanistic traditions. They may have been the same people who built the mounds rather than the
multiple-race idea that also peppered 19th century thinking. In other words they may be the descendants of the Adena peoples.

It was a fun and compelling read but a tale if you will. Yes I have been had but I am glad to have read it anyway since it stimulated some ideas.

I encourage anyone interested to read the Wiki article that follows:



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