Indigenous Voices in the HSP Collection

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Indigenous Voices in the HSP Collection

2017-08-09 10:29

In 1994, the UN declared that International Day of the World's Indigenous Peoples would be observed on August 9th every year. Bearing that declaration in mind, I decided to examine HSP’s collection and see what, if any, primary documentation of the voices of indigenous peoples to the area survives.

The area around Philadelphia was home to the Lenni Lenape, also called the Lenape or Delaware, when Europeans arrived. As was the case with other settlements, the indigenous peoples were forced into displacement relatively soon after the arrival of white settlers.

One of the primary documents in HSP’s collection specifically written by indigenous peoples is the Chiefs of the Delaware Indians at Allegaeening [Allegheny] letter to Patrick Gordon. Dated 1732, the letter is faint with spidery handwriting, but has clear pictographic signatures. Though difficult to discern, the text is a direct recording of Lenape voices and communications.

The majority of the documents and books in HSP’s collections are written by Europeans, however. One of the most well-known is William Penn’s peace treaty with the Lenape, made in what is now Penn Treaty Park. In addition to that, HSP holds the Indian Rights Association’s papers; the Association was founded by Europeans in the 19th century to “bring about the complete civilization of the Indians and their admission to citizenship.” The Association maintained close ties to indigenous populations as well as the Bureau of Indian Affairs, but at its core the organization viewed indigenous culture through a colonizing European lens.

These ethnographies and anthropological works in HSP’s collection all rely on primary informants to varying degrees; it’s really only those documents from the twentieth century that focus on indigenous voices while regularly naming informants. One of the most interesting is Frank Speck’s A study of the Delaware Indian big house ceremony : in native text dictated by WitapanoÌxwe. The majority of the book is the transcribed oral account by a Delaware man describing a ceremony intended to fulfill obligations owed to a ‘pantheon of spiritual forces’, in Speck’s words. A student of Franz Boas - the father of American anthropology - Speck makes it clear that his informant was raised in the culture he is describing, and includes his original account in the Delaware language with the translation on the facing page. He also rather tactfully drops in that WitapanoÌxwe was compensated for his work and time.

Speck has strong opinions regarding those who do not work with indigenous informants:

“[Prior research and speculative writing not directly based on interviews] has been sufficient to cause hesitation on the part of ethnologists in using the record for the purpose of drawing culture conclusions since the accounts have all been fragmentary and recorded in the words of European observers instead of being based upon the expressions of the natives.”

A case study of this can be found in the analysis of the Walam Olum in anthropological and Native studies. The Walam Olum was presented by Constantine Samuel Rafinesque (also styled as Rafinesque-Schmaltz) as a historical narrative of Lenape stories, including a creation myth, a record of the migration from west to east, and a brief historical account of the coming of Europeans.

Rafinesque claimed that his source was pictographs recorded on wooden tablets or sticks, and he reproduces these pictographs along with the accompanying ‘verse’ in the Delaware language, and provides his own translation. His source was given only as a Dr. Ward of Indiana.

From the start, historians were skeptical. Was the Walam Olum even real? Daniel Brinton, in The Lenape and their Legends goes into some depth on this question, citing linguistic analysis by native speakers which declares the language to be accurate. Brinton regularly notes that he consults on this or that point with a ‘well-educated’ native, but only rarely names his sources. And, although his respect and affection is clear, it is not Lenape voices that are centered in his writing. He redraws the pictographs of the Walam Olum (introducing errors) and provides his own translation from Delaware to English.

Jumping forward a century gives us a handsome volume released by the Indiana Historical Society that reproduces the pages of Rafinesque’s notebook, offering translations and glossaries provided by bilingual native speakers. The voices of the actual Lenape people are much more present, and reliance on their knowledge (both linguistic and historical) takes precedence.

The Walam Olum is now generally regarded as a fake. In his 1994 essay “Unmasking the Walum Olum: A 19th-Century Hoax,” David M. Oestreicher presented evidence to show that Rafinesque fabricated the stories, which he actually translated from English to the Delaware language using a series of dictionaries available at the time. As a result, the Delaware tribe of Indians (now in Oklahoma after forced relocation) withdrew their endorsement of the document in 1997.

While I found the story of the Walam Olum fascinating, taking a step back and looking at texts available in HSP’s collection shows the gradual movement towards recognizing the validity of indigenous voices. These voices have always been present, but it has been, and continues to be, a long journey still to bring them to the forefront within a wider culture.



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