- On Records: Delaware Indians, Colonists, and the Media of History and Memory by Andrew Newman
Andrew Newman aims to unravel the fundamental complexities of Native American sources written by nonnatives and how those records oftentimes do not catch the entire context of cultural meaning. In this case Newman analyzes four contentious episodes between the Delaware Indians and the early settlers of New York and Pennsylvania. Uncovering the myths behind the Walam Olum, the Dido Motif, the Great Treaty of Peace, and the Walking Purchase of 1737, Newman successfully illustrates how the media of history and memory was contested between colonists and Indians in the past and how they continue to be disputed by scholars and the courtroom in the present. He skillfully threads his narrative around the central question: “To what extent might we consider written representations of Native American oral [End Page 395] forms as records not only of spoken language but also of the sometimes distant historical events that were spoken of” (6)? Newman finds his answer in the unwritten context of the records and representations that were used to negotiate understanding between whites and Indians. These events, recorded by Euro-Americans and used as factual information for decades, failed to have native peoples “speak to us fully, without mediation, to circumvent the processes of negotiation involved in reading for the ‘real’ Native Americans in writings by non-Indians” (53).
Concerned with the idea of the “chain of memory,” Newman demonstrates how various Native American material culture—wampum, landmarks, and relics—possess important messages that are often overlooked because their meanings are not easily interpreted. They also require confidence in sources that are not always present in the written record. Despite the reliance on memorization, Newman believes that the “chain of memory” is closely linked to the stability of group identity and strongly attached to the landscape where it originated. These memories are maintained through apprenticeship and carried forward by subsequent generations, even during times of encroachment and removal. And although not completely transportable, “the parts of the chain that have become visible, so to speak, are sufficient to allow the inference that it extended deeply into the precolonial past” (194). Memory, however, is not without its weaknesses. Indeed, Newman candidly points out that, over time, memory will exaggerate, lose detail, and distort, but oral traditions often retain specific details that can be collaborated by later generations. Thus, when memory and documentation overlap, it provides stronger evidence that native traditions possess historical time more so than the above weaknesses do to invalidate them.
One of Newman’s greatest contributions is his ability to provide a balanced interpretation of how a common experience between natives and colonists ultimately diverged into two completely separate understandings. Whether it be over a misinterpretation over words and phrases that the Indians believed were mutually understood in the Walking Purchase of 1737, a dubious historical narrative that the Delaware defiantly claim to be false in the Walam Olum, the trickery of the first land transaction between the Dutch and Delaware known as the Dido Motif, or the centuries-old story of William Penn meeting Delaware leaders under the elm tree outside Philadelphia negotiating the Great Treaty [End Page 396] of Peace, Newman cites all as significant challenges to native memory and oral traditions. One of the conflicting reasons for misunderstanding is largely based on the written language. Writing has often been used as the defining determinate for civilization, and “human memory,” according to James Logan, a Proprietary agent for Pennsylvania, “was short and weak” (146). Therefore, Newman explains, too much significance has been placed on the western value of writing and “to check oral traditions against the documentary record for inconsistencies is to hold them to an unrealistic standard” (62).
The danger of denying the association of native oral traditions with historical events, according to Newman, is to not recognize native self-determination. In fact, Newman goes to great lengths to demonstrate that known native traditions and memories can oftentimes...