The HISTORIAN, the RECORDER, and the EDITOR
The WALAM OLUM
How was the Walam Olum message converted to English?
The best written record, made in 1898, tells us that an old Lenape man, who knew the words associated with the pictographs, recited the story to a Moravian priest some time after 1821. The priest recorded the sounds he heard into English letters. Then Mr. Rafinesque spent years trying to understand the language before he edited and published the Walam Olum in1836.
Creating a mental picture of these episodes is difficult. The Lenape Historian and the Moravian Recorder must have interacted through out several weeks. Their interaction may have occurred a few years after the chaotic period in the Lenape tribe that resulted in the passage of the pictographs to Dr. Ward. The Historian and Recorder must have had a mutually trustful relationship and circumstances to enable a prolonged verbal exchange.
There must have been some complications. The Historian knew the verses for each pictograph, so he may have learned the verses in his own preparation to be a Historian. The verses he learned must have been passed from mind to mouth to mind through more than 16 generations. He may have spoken the words in the language of the 1800's. A Lenape about seventy (70) years later said that he recognized most of the words except for those words spoken in a dialect. So the Walam Olum words must have been in common use during the 1800s.
The Historian and the Recorder must have had difficulty transmitting the sounds. In a few verses two words meaning the same thing were spelled differently. A prefix was added to the previous word as a suffix. A simple conjunction sound was split. Over an over Old Norse phrases were written as one Walam Olum word. Yet Walam Olum words having comparable Algonquin words were divided, making their recognition more difficult to a later Algonquin reader.
The meanings of some words must have changed during the generations of memory recitation. Some syllables of the original words slipped away. Some of the ancient words appear to have been memorized with unknown syllables retained. The original Old Norse words contain the unknown syllables, which were not used in Algonquin speech of the 1800s.
The Historian gave the meaning based on similar concurrent words in his 1800s language. A few of the words may have been explained incorrectly. But the Editor, who did not speak the Algonquin language, may have messed with the original English translation to make the history conform more to his, the Editor's viewpoint.
The Editor had learned of the Turtle myths of several tribes. He impressed the "turtle" name unto a word meaning, "deserted" or "solitude." In two verses the Editor apparently changed the Algonquin word "west," to "east" so the Walam Olum matched the Editor's very strong belief that the Algonquins migrated from the west to the east. Directions cited in a subsequent verse indicate that the Walam Olum people left the North, East, and South to travel to the West.
A major Editorial substitution was for the word "Akomen." The Editor apparently chose to compare "Ako" with the "askook" word used by Algonquins to describe snakes. The Old Norse word "skakk" means slanted (compare to modern English "askew"}. The Algonquins, speaking Old Norse, often named animals for their behavior. Snakes traveled "askew." So snakes were named called "askook. The Editor used the askook association to write, in English, "Snake land" for the Akomen word.
But in the 1700s there were "Accu" place names in Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Delaware. Associated with those names were tribes named, by the French, "Nauset" A good hypothesis is that "Akomen" was a valid name for Northeast America and these places where named for King Haakon Haakon IV of Norway about 1260 when he was the commander of the best navy in the world.
So the Editor translated "turtles and snakes" where there were none and slipped in "to the east" phrases in Algonquin instead of "to the west." These Editorial changes caused disbelief among Lenape who had memories of migrating to the west. Many Lenape readers believed that the English version of their history was really a "white man's creation."
Other translation error are harder to trace to the recording phase or the editing phase. An English phrase for a Walam Olum "word" was left out. Was the omission and honest mistake or was it edited out because the phrase was not believable to the Editor? There appears to be a morphing of "l," "n," and "a" sounds. Did the morphing occur during the generations of memory transmission or during the recording session when the Moravian priest may not have heard the exact sounds spoken by the Algonquin Historian?
Almost every word of the Walam Olum can be deciphered by using Reider T. Sherwin's eight volumes of The Viking and the Red Man. During the decipherment the inconsistencies discovered are consistent with a history spoken in Old Norse, transmitted by memory through more than 16 generations, recorded by a Moravian priest listening to an Algonquin Historian and Edited by a man with strong beliefs which were not correct.
This remarkable history deserves recognition in the museums of North America.