October 9, 2004 David Oestreicher  "Unmasking the Walam Olum: a Nineteenth Century Hoax"

The naturalist Constantine Samuel Rafinesque claimed that in 1822 he discovered the Walam Olum, allegedly a set of pictographic tablets with an accompanying text in the Lenape (Delaware) Indian language.  By 1833, Rafinesque claimed to have translated the Walam Olum, and that it related the story of Delaware Indian origins in Asia and the emigration of the Delaware and other tribes to America.  In this talk, noted ethnologist David M. Oestreicher presented definitive evidence that the Walam Olum - one of the most controversial and important American Indian documents - is indeed a hoax and that Rafinesque, the alleged discoverer, was actually the indisputable forger.  It examines why the Walam Olum was created and the effect it has had upon generations of scholars as well as upon the Delaware Indians.  It also explored why the hoax remained an enigma for so long.  Dr. Oestreicher also examined and debunked the claim that Rafinesque made the first major contribution to the decipherment of the Mayan hieroglyphs.

From the age of 17, David M. Oestreicher lived intermittently among the Lenape (Delaware) Indians of Oklahoma and Ontario, recording their language and customs from the last traditional elders.  He is curator of the award-winning traveling exhibition In Search of the Lenape: The Delaware Indians Past and Present.  The New York Times described this exhibition as "an extended reverie" capturing "the vitality and poignancy of the Lenape saga."  In 1995, he attracted international attention by demonstrating that the Walam Olum, long believed by many to be an authentic Lenape Indian migration epic, is a hoax perpetrated by a non-Indian.  His articles on the subject have appeared in leading scholarly journals and books, and he is currently preparing a full-length treatment on the subject for the Memoirs of the American Philosophical Society.  Oestreicher holds masters degrees in anthropology and Hebraic Studies and has a doctorate in anthropology from Rutgers University.

back to home page