The Walam Olum, usually translated as "Red Record" or "Red Score," is said to be a Lenape (also called "Delaware") Native American creation narrative, although most scholars today consider it to be a hoax. A English translation of the entire text and a sample portion of the Lenape words of the Walam Olum were published by the naturalist Constantine Samuel Rafinesque in the first volume of his book, The American Nations, in 1836.
The contents of the text include a summary of the history and migrations of the tribe. The original was allegedly recorded in pictographs on cedar wood tablets or sticks, though the explanatory accompanying transcription of verses in the Lenape language came from a different source. Rafinesque explained in the Walam Olum; "Olum.. implies a record, a notched stick, an engraved piece of wood or bark." Rafinesque claimed to have acquired the wooden sticks containing pictographs from "the late Dr. Ward of Indiana." Someone unnamed—perhaps Dr. Ward—had supposedly received them in 1820 directly from the Lenape in return for a medical cure. Two years later the Lenape words related to the pictographs "were obtained from another individual." Rafinesque's translation of the 183 verses total fewer than 3,000 words; the supposed Lenape pictographs and verses in the Lenape language that explain them appear juxtaposed in Rafinesque's manuscript, which is now at the University of Pennsylvania. There is no evidence that the original sticks ever existed except for Rafinesque's testimony and scholars have only had Rafinesque’s alleged copy to study.
The Walam Olum includes a creation account, a flood story, and the narration of a series of migrations, which Rafinesque and others claimed or interpreted to begin in Asia. A long list of alleged chiefs are included, which appear to provide dates for the epic. According to Rafinesque, the chiefs appear as early as 1600 BCE.
The Walam Olum in the 19th century
Despite the unclear origins of the Walam Olum, it was treated as an accurate account by historians, anthropologists, and archaeologists for many years. A recent biography by Professor Terry A. Barnhart of Ephraim G. Squier, widely regarded as an influential figure of American archaeology, tells the story of how Squier was first to republish the text in 1849. He accepted it as genuine, partially on internal evidence but also because George Copway, to whom he showed his 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. Barnhart points out that although Copway was "fluent in his own dialect... he was certainly not an expert on the traditions and language of the Delaware".(Barnhart:130-131)
He was followed by a host of leading scholars from that time until the late 20th century. For example, in 1885, the well-known ethnologist, Daniel G. Brinton, published a new translation of the text. However, not all scholars accepted Rafinesque's story. As early as 1849 Henry Rowe Schoolcraft wrote to Ephraim G. Squier that he believed the document might be fraudulent.
The Walum Olum in the 20th century
In 1954, a multidisciplinary team of scholars from the Indiana Historical Society published yet another translation and commentary, saying that "the Red Score is a worthy subject for students of aboriginal culture". Other translations and commentaries have followed, including translations into languages other than English. A review of the publication by the Indiana Historical Society mentioned above says "Paul Weer traces the history of the document, concluding that the "Dr. Ward" from whom Rafinesque said he received it cannot be historically identified, and that, therefore, the circumstances of its origin are undeniably clouded."
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 Atlantic shores at the mouth of the Delaware River, offers evidence of how ancient and widespread is the myth of a flood (see Deluge (mythology) 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." (Dewdney, page 128). Joe Napora also stated "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 (Napora, page 1)."
Criticisms of its 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 resemblances of words in the texts to 19th century Lenape-English word lists but was unable to convince most of his colleagues that the text was spurious (citation needed). A Walam Olum project was announced in 1955 by Witthoft in the Journal of American Linguistics (Witthoft 1955), but this project apparently never materialized.
Some of this research contributed to an eventual determination of inaccuracy by some. For example, Witthoft's analysis implied that Rafinesque composed the narrative himself from Lenape texts that had already been put into print (Witthoft 1955). By the 1990's, the Walam Olum was considered by some to be a well-made fraud. Steven Williams summarized the history of the case and the evidence against the document, lumping it with many other famous archaeological frauds, in his 1991 publication.
Herbert C. Kraft, an expert on the Lenape, had also long suspected the document to be a fraud. Kraft stated that it did not square with the archaeological record and cited a 1985 survey conducted among Lenape elders by ethnologists David M. Oestreicher and James Rementer revealing that traditional Lenape had never heard of the document. However, the archaeological record reveals that engraved birchbark scrolls have been found in the local area, as shown by Kidd in American Antiquity as follows: "Two instances of Birch-bark "scrolls" in archaeological contexts are reported from the Head-of-the-Lakes Region In Ontario."
The Walam Olum since 1994
Notwithstanding Witthoft's tentative steps, and the doubts of these authors, there was still insufficient evidence for a satisfactory textual debunking of the narrative. In 1994, and afterwards, textual evidence that the Walam Olum was a hoax was suggested by David M. Oestreicher in “Unmasking the Walam Olum: A 19th Century Hoax.” Oestreicher argued that Rafinesque crafted the linguistic text from specific sources on the Delaware Language published by the American Philosophical Society and elsewhere; that the supposedly “Lenape” pictographs were in fact truncated hybrids from published Egyptian, Chinese, 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) Oestreicher also asserted that the stories were a conglomerate assembled from numerous sources on different cultures that literally spanned the globe; and that the Walam Olum was produced in part to win the international Prix Volney contest hosted in Paris and to prove Rafinesque’s long held theories regarding the peopling of America. A summary of Oestreicher’s findings appears in Kraft’s last work and magnum opus, The Lenape-Delaware Indian Heritage: 10,000 BC to AD 2000. Later, David Oestreicher wrote that "Napora 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". (Oestricher 2005:23-24). Oestreicher argued that the Walam Olum is not an authentic historical record and suggested that it must have been composed by someone having only a slight familiarity with the Lenape language.
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 Oklahomah originally endorsed the document but withdrew their endorsement on February 11th 1997 after reviewing the evidence (Oestreicher 2005:23). Whilst concluding that the burden of proof still lies on those who believe it 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".(Barnhart:149)
- Woodbury, Richard B. (October 1955). "Review of "Walam Olum or Red Score. The Migration Legend of the Lenni Lenape or Delaware Indians. A New Translation, Interpreted by Linguistic, Historical, Archaeological, Ethnological, and Physical Anthropological Studies"". American Antiquity. 21 (2): 191–192. doi:10.2307/276869.
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