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  • The Walam Olum:An Indigenous Apocrypha and Its Readers
  • Andrew Newman (bio)

In the mid 1990s several prestigious literary journals published experimental poems by Araki Yasusada, a Hiroshima survivor. The revelation that the author was an invented persona caused a minor scandal. Not only were the poems, in the view of some critics, aesthetically unworthy of the venues in which they appeared, but the poems and accompanying biographical and translator's notes carried evidence, obvious in retrospect, that they could not have been from their purported time and place. When such a "transparent hoax" succeeds, it provides grounds for a critique of the politics of its reception (Owen 36). Perhaps that was an aim of the Yasusada hoaxer: to provoke recriminating discussions about "identity politics and its relationship to poetic taste" (Chang et al. 34), the "New Multiculturalism," and "the current disciplinary demand" (Perloff 32). "[W]hat we crave, after all," concludes the sinologist Stephen Owen, decrying the actual "provinciality" behind the apparent openness of "contemporary culture" to cultural otherness, is "only the simulacrum of our own fantasies" (36).1

In this essay, also with the benefit of hindsight, I use the longstanding acceptance of an earlier work of apocrypha as a similar occasion for critique. The Wallam olum first appeared in 1833 as a manuscript presenting 183 pictographs that the eccentric natural scientist Constantine Rafinesque had purportedly copied from etched cedar sticks that he had received in 1822 from a certain "late Dr. Ward of Indiana"; supposed additional material included a transcription of an accompanying chant that Rafinesque received from an unidentified individual and translated after a "deep study of the Linapi" language and a supplementary [End Page 26] "Fragment," without pictographs, that Rafinesque purportedly received in translation from a man named "John Burns" (7, 208; American Nations 122, 140).2 The Walam Olum related origin myths and an epic account of migration, accomplished over 90 generations, from, apparently, the far side of the Bering Strait to the eastern seaboard of North America, where the Lenapes (Delawares) encountered the first visitors from Europe. The "Fragment" related post-contact injustices and depredations, and the forced reverse-migration of the Delawares back across the Mississippi.3 Beginning in 1849, the Walam Olum was repeatedly translated and reissued in various editions and anthologies, but Rafinesque never produced the wooden originals, and Ward and Burns were never conclusively identified, so the Walam Olum had doubters from the beginning.

In the retrospect afforded by the work of David M. Oestreicher, who thoroughly debunked the Walam Olum in 1994, it becomes apparent just how motivated the reception of the Walam Olum was. That is, its proponents neglected the easy and obvious explanation for its existence, devoting various efforts to vindicating Rafinesque's dubious reputation, substantiating his fishy story about his acquisition of the document, and, in some sense, tampering with the evidence: as Oestreicher demonstrates, its translators corrected perceived errors that were actually clues that the Walam Olum was created by someone lacking basic competency in the Lenape language.4 As with the Araki Yasusada hoax, Walam Olum proponents also operated, paradoxically, in perhaps complacent ignorance of the culture they were championing, failing to take into account the opinions and expertise of living Lenapes even as they recovered the supposed story of their ancestors.5

This essay does not add to Oestreicher's meticulous mechanical expositions, referenced heavily below, of Rafinesque's fabrication of the Walam Olum and of the compounding series of errors and oversights made by the preceding investigators into the Walam Olum, although I do analyze a significant republication of the Walam Olum that postdates his findings. My principal contribution to the now considerable body of research on the Walam Olum is to illuminate a political and ideological tendency underlying both its creation and its reception. Oestreicher seems too indignant at Rafinesque's imposture to credit him with any virtuous motives, but rhetorically, at least, Rafinesque took a strong stance against Indian Removal, and the Walam Olum supported this stance through its content and especially its form. Its reception, then, was fueled by a corresponding desire to credit the Native Americans with the type of cultural achievement that would invalidate the prejudice...


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