Was Homer real or not? Is the Bible a trustworthy text or a conspiracy filled with myths? You may have heard of these controversies, and rightly so, as they are significant questions for our understanding of European and global history. You may be surprised that one Amerindian has a widely debated text as well. If you are like me, you grew up convinced that the Western Hemisphere had no writing system, save the Maya scripts. Not so: the Mi’kmaq, Lenni Lenape, and other northeastern Amerindians had hieroglyphic-like writing.
Today’s article focuses on a work supposedly translated from Lenni Lenape glyphs, the Wallum Olam. Like an Amerindian Torah, it shows the origins of the world and the migrations that formed that nation. It includes encounters with the Iroquois, giants, and snake-worshipers. However, the debate rages due to the circumstances of its translation by a University of Transylvania professor, Constantine Rafinesque, its script, and its record of crossing the Bering Strait. Debated since 1836, scholarly opinion today has mostly swung in the direction of the Wallum Olam as a hoax, created by Rafinesque as a polemic to show the common humanity and civility of the Lenni Lenape to an anti-Amerindian America. This was decided in 1996 when Ph.D. candidate David Ostreicher wrote a detailed analysis examining the symbology to the contrary. Ostreicher was a friend of the Lenape and convinced the tribe to repudiate it from their history.
However, more recent scholarship has reopened the question of its authenticity. A geneticist, Dr. Nathaniel Jeanson, conducted a study in 2020 to determine the entrance of a gene into Amerindian tribes. This allele was particular to Lenni Lenape, Ojibwa, and other northeastern tribes. In this study, he found that the entrance of this gene was from 200 to 800 B.C., the same range of dates of the chronology of the sachems (chiefs) in the Wallum Olam. Furthermore, the dates for droughts in the Wallum Olam matched the dendrological data for droughts in the central and western USA. Jeason’s methodology was standard genetic clock research allowing for a wide range of error with four different possibilities. His conclusion was that the Wallum Olam has some validity in regards to dates of events in Lenni Lenape history.
Amerindian history, oral and written, has been heavily affected by the European legacy on this continent. Whether the Wallum Olam is authentic, inaccurate, or even fraudulent may never be known. Different scholars have different backgrounds to address this, such as Ostreicher being a historian and Jeanson being a geneticist. To decipher the Wallum Olam, it may be necessary to have a multidisciplinary approach with a variety of agendas to fully unravel this literary mystery.
Newman, Andrew. "The Walam Olum: An Indigenous Apocrypha and Its Readers." American Literary History, vol. 22, no. 1, 2010.
Jeanson, Nathaniel. "Young-Earth Y Chromosome Clocks Confirm Known Post-Columbian Amerindian Population History and Suggest Pre-Columbian Population Replacement in the Americas." Answers Research Journal. vol. 13, 2020.
Last Fact Checked on May 29th, 2021.