Extraordinary archive of American outsider thought and art

Van Le Roy Simmons and Nellie Sophrona Simmons, [Substantive archive of typescript and manuscript works and large, hand-drawn educational charts on Native American legends and language and the principles and development of cosmic life.] Grand Rapids, MI, 1940s.]
Five typescript and manuscript works, one published volume and 21-hand-drawn educational charts, all described in detail below. Very good or better condition overall.
$75,000

An astonishing archive, largely unpublished, by a self-professed Native American (“an Indian by choice”), comprising five typescript and manuscript works, one published volume, and twenty one hand-drawn educational charts, on Native American legends and language and the development and principles of cosmic life, embracing the fields of astronomy, astrology, evolutionary biology, psychology, anthropology, and mystical cosmology. All materials reflect a creative mash-up of science, faith, and cultural appropriation, and are utterly unique in our experience.

The archive includes the following:

Indian Historical Legends : History Legend Religion Inspiration Theory Some Humor. 531 Cedar St., N.E., Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1942. 4to (11” x 8.5”), fastened with string to printed card stock upper wrapper, printed title page, preliminary manuscript index, and 56 typed pp. (rectos only) on onionskin, with manuscript additions, pasted-down interpolations and cancels in typescript and manuscript. CONDITION: Very good, light wear to edges.

 

[with]
The Great Spirit Release and Indian Historical Legend : Revealing History Legend Theology Inspiration Character Theory Some Humor. 531 Cedar St., N.E., Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1943. 4to (11” x 8.5”), fastened with string to a printed and pencil-decorated card stock upper wrapper, with four prelims. (including printed title page, and leaf of printer instructions in manuscript), plus 60 pp. in typescript and manuscript (rectos only) with extensive pasted-on “riders” folding out from the lower edge of pages (some going several pages), and extensive revisions. Very good condition, moderate wear to cover and page edges, chipping to lower edge with minimal loss to text.

 

[with]
Our Universe [bound with] Astronomy and Astrology. N.d. 4to (11” x 8.5”), bound along top edge, 19 pp. manuscript in ink. Very good condition.

 

[with]
The Theory Of Bibolution. 531 Cedar St., N.E., Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1948. 4to (11” x 8.5”), tape-bound along top edge, with two prelims, 143 pp. (rectos only), largely typescript but interleaved with 43 lively original illustrations, either on Simmons’s own or Michigan Trust Company letterhead, with numerous manuscript corrections. Very good conditoion.

 

[with]
A Lexicon of North American Indian Languages with Legend. [Cover title:] Tribal Indian Languages and Legend. 1945. 8vo (8.5” x 6”) gray cloth over boards, title stamped in orange at upper cover. 101 pp. Good condition, extremities lightly bumped, light soiling to upper cover, inner hinges reinforced with brown paper.

 

[with]
[Untitled set of educational charts, illustrating themes from “Our Universe,” “Astronomy and Astrology,” and “Bibolution”.] Twenty one drawings and charts in pencil, ink and colored pencil on heavy craft paper, sewn and bound with tape at top to form a package ca. 37”h x 36”w. Most of the images on a single sheet, 37” x 36”, but four on two joined sheets and significantly larger, though folded to fit the package. Good condition, some loss at one of the upper corners, wrinkling and creasing, and fraying and dog-earing at edges. Some water[?] staining along one side affecting several images, but very good. A complete account of the charts appears at the end of this description.

The eccentric world view of V. L. R. and Nellie S. Simmons
In addition to being a self-professed Native American—“I am an Indian by choice and applied study, not by birth or adoption. Part of my story comes from theory and inspiration” (Preface, The Great Spirit Release, p. 3) V. L. R. Simmons of Grand Rapids, Michigan, along with his wife Nellie S. Simmons, developed his own theory of evolution and its relation to the principles of spiritual life governing “Planets and stars” (Astronomy and Astrology, p. 1). The overarching argument presented by this extraordinary archive ties together the development of cosmic and human life. As The Theory of BibolutionOur Universe, and Astronomy and Astrology variously outline, the Simmonses believed that biological life on earth—beginning, in their account, with the “omeba” in the year 5000 “B.M.” (Before Mankind)—was formed by the same purely spiritual energy of light (“God power”) that is shared by planets and stars, and that the intrinsic goal of every living thing, biological and celestial alike, is to give back the spiritual color it accrues over its lifetime to the sun, which is the “great clearinghouse of spiritual power” (Our Universe, p. 1). Anthropologically, meanwhile, Indian Historical Legends and its expanded draft The Great Spirit Release promote the view that all history since the evolution of humans has been preserved in “legend” (Native American oral histories) and “myth” (written histories, particularly Biblical), and that these sources, along with astrological information, all support a single narrative of societal development that only diverged when the peoples that would become “Indians” crossed the Bering Land Bridge into the Americas.

The Simmonses’ work evidently draws on several sources of inspiration. Their personal identification with indigenous cultures—which extended to their adoption of names from an unspecified language (So-an-ge-ta-ha, or “Strong Heart,” and Wa-ca-zi-zi, “Sun Flower”)—was inspired by the Indian Association of America and their admiration of Vincent Red Fox. The drawing of the human body, meanwhile, is early-modern in outlook—its description of the pineal gland as the “Spiritual-Physical Tie-Up Home of the SOUL” is a view that dates at least back to René Descartes in the 17th century. Their discussion of the omeba’s “need-desire” and “soul encouragement, and direction” suggests a 20th century vitalist approach, in which biological development proceeds not through blind cause and effect but is dictated by an intrinsic purpose and goal. Simmons describes the evolution from omebic to more complex life-forms, for instance, in these terms: “When their little souls were satisfied with their efforts their desire did reach out for friendly companionship and fellowship with each other. This would cause clinging together and the life warmth of their bodies would cause a desire or wish for what we might term suprarenal glandular wish.…Lines of producing posterity were thus established” that eventually “did process through to mankind” (Bibolution, p. 9).

Likewise, the Simmonses’ conviction that “There is no great heat on the sun. Its brightness is spiritual power that has been developed to the color (spiritual color) to which our organs of vision have been attuned” (Our Universe, p. 1) recalls the anthroposophical thought of Rudolf Steiner and 20th century German psychophysicist Gustav Fechner’s belief that planets have souls. William James, who studied in Germany, published on Fechner’s thought when he returned to the United States, and the U.S. branch of the Anthroposophical Society was founded in 1923 with headquarters in Ann Arbor. Finally, the Simmonses’ commitment to tracing an Old Testament lineage for the American Indians (from Nimrod) relies on the Bering Land Bridge Theory, and is possibly influenced by Mormon teachings on the Lamanites. Many sections in The Great Spirit Release involve Indian elders recounting Biblical lore as part of their own history, and Simmons remarks that “It has been wonderful how a story can retain its true self by legends on one side, and by writings on the other side, through two branches of civilization” (Indian Historical Legends, p. 7).

Despite many resonant similarities and some direct reception of ideas, in the case of the IAA, we have not located any firm ties between the Simmonses and organized alternative religions or groups, either in Michigan or beyond. However, in a state that gave birth to Seventh Day Adventism, became the American capital of Anthroposophy, and boasted thriving communities of Hicksite Quakers, Swedenborgians, Universalists, and Spiritualists, the Simmonses’ eccentric and capacious cosmology was certainly in good company. The Simmonses’ work, much of it apparently unpublished, is not yet addressed in the secondary literature, but its broad and deep connections to contemporary thought and culture render it well worthy of further research.

In addition to his career as a writer, V. L. R. Simmons (1878–1957) ran a small publishing firm. The letterhead appearing throughout the Bibolution typescript is headlined: “Tribal Indian Languages : Very Interesting to Boys and Girls” and lists Simmons, under his English as well as his Indian name, as “author and publisher” at 531 Cedar Street, N.E. in Grand Rapids, presumably his and Nellie’s home. Copyright records, all tied to this address, show the Simmonses securing rights to their work in England and Canada as well as the U.S. The only text Simmons seems to have published that was not of his own and his wife’s authorship is Hungarian-American journalist and lawyer Louis Kossuth Birinyi’s 1938 Why the Treaty of Trianon is Void, on the treaty of Versaille and the dissolution of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

Detailed description of the typescripts and manuscripts

The Great Spirit Release
The typescript of The Great Spirit Release exhibits a kind of overflowing exuberance, with fold-out charts and maps (including one of the migration of Nimrod’s descendants, i.e., indigenous Americans), tipped in holograph additions, and even an extraordinary five-foot-long lineage of Adam. In addition to its titular section and another called “The Start of the Spirit Release,” Great Spirit includes numerous legends apparently from “Chief Snow Cloud,” “Chief Standing Chief,” “Chief Fog Disappearance” and others, and covers such anthropological topics as “Indian Law,” “The Purification Ceremony,” “Indian Marriage,” “Cooking and Preparing Meals” and “Indian Ideals.” Perhaps intended to situate this human anthropology within their larger cosmological views, it also includes essays on “Color,” “The Creation of a New Soul,” “The Virgin Conception,” “Distance,” and “Hypnotism,” among other subjects. The Great Spirit Release also includes a dictionary “Indian Sign Language,” which covers eleven pages and provides descriptions and definitions of some two hundred signs.

Bibolution
The typescript of Bibolution, though more contained, is equally striking for its bold pen and ink drawings (and mounted typed captions) that illustrate the Simmonses’ light- and color-based conception of evolutionary theory, otherwise known as “bibolution” or “the Simmons theory of life.” The text consists of a 24-page theoretical introduction, followed by a series of forty-three in-depth, illustrated descriptions of notable life-forms and animals reflecting evolutionary history, beginning with the “omeba” and leaving off with the gorilla. It closes with another series of essays—twenty one pages in total, though with several tipped in typed additions ranging from a few lines to multiple sheets—addressing the “certain existent facts of structure, in living things connected with Mammalia” (p. 122); “What is the God Power?”; “Death of the Physical” “Producing of Kind”; “The Time Element”; “The Theory of Evolved Life”; “Reincarnation”; “The Origin of Matter”; “The Bible Science of Chemistry,” and more. Apparently unaware of the drawings’ inherent folk art appeal, the authors note only that the illustrations are primarily for conceptual purposes and are “not always intended to be portrait likenesses of the animal whose name appears with them.” The Simmonses published this text from their home in 1950. OCLC records just three copies, at Dartmouth, NYPL, and the British Library. Another copy is held by the Library of Congress. The published version expands on the typescript in two sections, and adds three more (a brief preface, a dedication, and a “prophetic warning”). Numerous minor differences in language appear throughout. The most significant discrepancy is the published version’s lack of illustrations, which in the typescript are so boldly and meticulously executed to communicate the fullness of the authors’ vision.

Our Universe and Astronomy and Astrology
This work provides an overview of the solar system and its celestial bodies: the course and duration of their orbits, their astral signs and astrological symbols, their houses in the zodiac, their archangels, musical keys, and “applied colors” in the spectrum visible to humans. It also includes an earnest discussion of Phaeton, the hypothetical planet proposed by the Titius–Bode law, whose destruction is supposed to have given rise to the asteroid belt. The archangel for Phaeton, according to the Simmonses, was Lucifer, but its applied color (silver-green) “was withdrawn from the spectrum of light by the fall of the planet. In Isaiah 14:12. ‘How art thou fallen from heaven, O Lucifer, son of the morning! how are thou cut down to the ground, which dids’t weaken the nations.’” Astronomy and Astrology, bound together with Our Universe, outlines common mistakes of both astronomers and astrologers, asserts the “spiritual life” of planets and their relationship with life-forms’ soul-colors, and dismisses the physics-based arguments of “so-called” astronomers as “Poppycock,” insisting instead that “If mankind could properly read astrological settings all things would be clear…Astrology today has too many PSILOSOPHERS [his word] (pretenders of knowledge) and not enough PHILOSOPHERS of legendary truth” (Astronomy and Astrology, p. 6).

Lexicon of North American Indian Languages and Legend
This self-published volume, an expanded edition of the Simmonses’ 1939 Speakum Injun? a lexicon of North American Indian languages and dialects, contains brief glosses of some twelve Native American languages and content similar to that of The Great Spirit Release. It also notes that “Many of the articles and pictures” in the volume “are through th[e] courtesy of The Indian Association of America, Inc” (p. 3). Like the Improved Order of Redmen and other Fraternal and Pan-Indian associations, the IAA consisted of white people who liked to “play Indian” (to use Phil Deloria’s phrase), and whose activities were spurred by John Collier’s “Indian New Deal” and linguistic preservation initiatives beginning in the 1920s. The book opens with a picture of the IAA’s founder, “Vincent Red Fox,” whom the authors thank for sharing his knowledge of “the American Red Men.” Vincent Red Fox is best known for his 1914 cross-country trip on horseback to gather state endorsements for the establishment of an American Indian national holiday. Perhaps the Simmonses first encountered him in the context of that campaign.

The educational charts
The 21 educational charts, with their substantial size, liberal use of color, and similarly bold execution, are immediately compelling. Their naïve but sure-handed style combines simplicity of form with at times fine detail (especially in teeth, fish skeletons, and reptile spines) and conveys an array of surprisingly evocative expressions on the animals’ faces. Likewise, their world view and quirky use of the English language, unencumbered by standard grammar and syntax, lend a charm entirely absent from the innumerable wall charts and maps published for classroom use by Denoyer-Geppert and other such firms. Evidently designed to accompany the texts, the charts suggest that the Simmonses took—or intended to take—their peculiar views on tour. The charts fall into two main series, evolutionary and astronomical. Also included is a small group of independent charts.

The 11 charts in the evolutionary series mirror (on a much larger scale) many of the illustrations in Bibolution, and depict a long lineage of life forms, from “Omebic Life,” “Anglaspis Life,” “Paddle Life,” “Crawl in Water” and finally “Crawl on Land” (on one chart) to “Walking on Fours (Cynodout),” and “Scamper (Cymura)” (on another) to “Gibbon,” “Gorilla,” and finally “Mankind” (on a third). This last and highest expression of divine creation is pictured as a white man in a hat and long coat with extraordinarily small hands and a rather leering grin. Other charts in the series bear quite wonderful tableaus of animals, each labeled with what the Simmonses apparently considered its most salient traits, including “Greyhound. Leaping. Endurance. Speed”; “Kangaroo Ricochetting type”; “Sloth hang down”; and “Be-He-Moth,” otherwise known as “Poor sight—Rhinocerous Birds Help Them.”

Seven charts cover astronomy and astrology and complement Our Universe and Astronomy and Astrology. These include diagrams of the solar system and the connections of celestial bodies not only to their spiritual colors and their astrological signs, houses, and traits, but also to the Biblical archangels that guide their orbits (Gabriel guides Earth, for instance).

A chart on “Our Senses” supplements the explanations provided by “The Twelve Senses” essay in The Great Spirit Release and Indian Historical Legends. Beginning with the five physical senses, it culminates in the “Twelfth Sense—Immunity from Sin and Death” and finally, “Sanctification,” achieved “when the Soul entirely conquers the Spirit.” While the sixth sense—“Conscience. Pineal Sight. Wisdom and Reason”—is no small feat, the seventh presents a real hurdle, since it “is added by rebirth. Unless you have this sense you cannot possess the senses that follow…God alone gives rebirth” (Great Spirit, p. 55).

Perhaps most visually striking is the chart, from the evolutionary series, showing a profile drawing of a human head and torso, compared with the head and body of a fish, and indicating “the parts of Man’s Hearing and Eating Apparatus” that came “From Fishes.” Certainly the most edifying is the chart on which a profile drawing of a human head and torso illustrates our glandular system, and warns: 

“Bad habits of Sensual and Carnal Lust Make all Spiritual Faculties Subservient to Morbid Passion Which Cause Elevating Influences to be Prostituted to Vulgar and Base-born Idolitarious Creations.”

 

“[The] Gonads [are responsible for] Determination of Manhood and Womanhood. Reproduction is SOUL Controlled. Sinful SPIRIT Control Can Ruin SOUL and BODY. Cause of Most Disease. Uncontrolled Means Early Death.”

Most of the charts are ca. three feet square, but a few have added flaps rendering them larger and at times nearly double that in size. The charts are sewn at the top, the sewing reinforced with heavy cloth tape, creating something very much like a modern flipchart. The sturdiness of the package suggests that it was intended for long and heavy use.

The astronomical series

  1. “THE STARS and PLANETS.” With folding flap at top bearing title. A child-like diagram of the Solar System, with added elements incorporating astrology, religion and color theory.
  2. Untitled astrological chart. With large added flap, ca. 35”h x 66”w. Chart in the form of a flattened ellipse, with 12 “wedges,” each devoted to a description of an astrological sign. As with chart #1, above, the text is rendered with pasted-on blocks of printed text.
  3. Untitled celestial chart surrounding a circular astrological chart labeled “Sun’s Primary Mazzaroth Center of All.” Spectacular, and the most inherently decorative chart in the set.
  4. Untitled chart comparing the size of the Sun to that of Antares and Betelgeuse.
  5. Untitled chart defining and explaining the term “orbit.”
  6. Untitled chart of the solar system depicting the elliptical orbits of three major asteroids. The planetary orbits are each associated with an angel, that of Earth, for example, with Gabriel.
  7. Simple chart of the solar system, possibly unfinished.

The evolutionary series

  1. “The Omeba As of 5000 Years Before Mankind First form of Life on Earth… [and] As of 4900 B.M.”
  2. Untitled chart depicting the evolution of simple organisms into proto-fish between 4800 and 4700 B.M.
  3. Untitled chart depicting the evolution of fish from “4600 B.M.” to “4400 B.M.,” emphasizing the morphing of fins into proto-feet.
  4. Untitled chart depicting the evolution of terrestrial lizards from “4300 B.M.” to “4100 B.M.”
  5. Untitled chart demonstrating how “From Fishes came the parts of Man’s Hearing and Eating Apparatus from Gill Bars.” If not the most attractive of the charts, arguably the most eye catching.
  6. Untitled chart depicting evolution from “OMEBIC LIFE AS OF 5000 B.M.” to “CRAWL ON LAND.”
  7. Another untitled evolutionary chart, terminating in the beaver.
  8. Untitled chart depicting evolutionary relationships between a “primitive placental mammal running type” and platypae, rabbits, otters etc.
  9. Another untitled chart, similar to the foregoing, but depicting seven mammals.
  10. Untitled chart depicting evolutionary relationships between 11 mammalian species. With an added flap at left bearing an image of “BE-HE-MOTH,” aka a rhinoceros.
  11. Untitled chart comparing gibbons, gorillas and mankind.

“Miscellaneous” charts

  1. “OUR SENSES.” The line heads rendered with pasted-on printed blocks of text from an unknown source.
  2. “The Course of Nature, is the Art of God.” Titled with a quote by the British poet Edward Young, an outline view of a human head and torso, depicting glands and their influence on physical and spiritual well-being. Includes the pineal gland, “Spiritual-Physical Tie-Up Home of the SOUL.”
  3. Untitled world map depicting the dispersion of humanity from Mount Ararat, probably beginning in 2100 B.C. With a large added flap at right, ca. 35”h x 66”w. Spectacular, and fascinating for blending a fundamentalist interpretation of human origins with a nod to the Bering Land Bridge Theory.

In summary, a weird, delightful, and quintessentially American blend of Christianity, modern science, astrology, obsession with Indian legends and lifeways, and more, illustrated with terrific original folk art and worthy of further study and exhibition.

Provenance and reference
The charts are from the estate of George J. Heckroth (1898?–1977), who in the latter half of the 1950s served as the inaugural director of the Clarke Historical Library at Central Michigan University. Trained as an engineer, Heckroth collected “primitive” art and Americana and had previously worked in the “Antiquarian Book Field” from 1924–47, with time off for service in both the Army and Navy. The manuscripts were likely in Heckroth’s possession at one time as well, but were separated from the chart at some juncture. A recent serendipitous opportunity has allowed us to reunite these materials.

Frank and Dolores Becker Papers, National Museum of the American Indian online.

Offered in partnership with James Arsenault & Company of Arrowsic, Maine.