Apr 20

The Prophet Handsome Lake

It’s not lost upon us as we explore the burned over district, that before any of the evangelical movements that took hold here in Upstate New York, this area was home to many different Native American tribes. One of the most dramatic and historically important unions of tribal cooperation happened right here when the Iroquois Confederacy was born, which is generally thought to have happened between the years 1450 and 1600. The Iroquois, or Haudenosaunee (People of the Long House) were originally made of five tribal nations, but eventually became six, which is why it is also referred to as the Six Nations. These six tribes are the Mohawks, Oneidas, Onondagas, Cayugas and Senecas and the Tuscaroras who would join later during the 1700’s. Today there are approximately 125,000 Iroquois people, with two-thirds living in the United States and the remainder living in Canada. Together they comprise the oldest living participatory democracy on Earth. There are literally hundreds of stories that can be told about these great people, but easily one of the most famous of all the Six Nation people was a man named Handsome Lake and he would revolutionize the religious history of the Six Nations forever.

The art of Kakwirakeron Ross Montour, found at http://kayeriakweks.wordpress.com/2012/09/

This may be what Handsome Lake looked like –
The art of Kakwirakeron Ross Montour, found at http://kayeriakweks.wordpress.com/2012/09/

Chris and I have always wanted to explore more of the religious history of the Iroquois; however, let me pose this question to our readers…just what religion did/do the Iroquois practice? Here’s the difficulty with answering that question; the Iroquois, like anybody else, are often split on their religious beliefs and just because they are Native American does not mean they all wear a head dress and dance around a fire. Plus, each of those Six Nations brought with them their own unique practices that did not always merge well with what the other tribes were doing. Take those issues and now add thousands of years of history, the colonization of Europeans and numerous wars and now you may see why Chris and I have yet to post anything about Native American religious beliefs…it is not very cut and dry. Plus, Chris and I are certainly in the habit of visiting physical sacred structures, but for many Native Americans, nature itself is sacred, making it very hard for us to have somewhere physical to visit. But as we did go and explore the other faiths and places we have brought to you before now, we continuously ran across one name more than many others and we feel the story of Handsome Lake and how he created the Longhouse religion for the Six Nation people is something all people should know. However, I feel it is important to say that we did not attend a Longhouse religious ceremony for this post, nor do we even really know how to (so if you have any connections let us know!), but we instead are telling the story of a prophet.

Handsome Lake comes from a fairly famous family of Seneca Indians; he was the half-brother of Cornplanter, a Seneca war chief who fought with the British during the American Revolution. Handsome Lake was also the uncle of Red Jacket, who was the Six Nations representative at the Treaty of Canandaigua (1794) which helped secure lands for the Seneca in New York State after America won independence. Handsome Lake, or Ganioda’yo, was born in 1735 in the Seneca village known as Conewaugus (also sometimes called Ganowauges), which today is just outside of Avon, New York. Supposedly there is a historical marker out in Avon to memorialize this, but when we went out to take a picture of it, we could not find it…and I assure you, we do not give up easily so it’s really not there. Handsome Lake grew up at a tumultuous time of upheaval for the Six Nations; Europeans continually encroached on their land, forcing them to relocate to reservations which also led to the erosion of the family. Due to the loss of their lands, much of their religious practices also began to erode since the environments the Six Nation peoples found themselves in now were just not conducive to their former religious practices with nature. As a result of so much drastic change in so short a period of time, what was once a great and powerful people began to turn to alcohol and decay began to take place from the inside out, which for many years included Handsome Lake himself.

Historical marker near Avon, NY that we went to try and find and can assure you, it is no longer there (but this picture can be found at http://www.waymarking.com/gallery/image.aspx?f=1&guid=175ac27f-4371-4b21-9f5f-79da68d0ac12

Historical marker near Avon, NY that we went to try and find and can assure you, it is no longer there
(but this picture can be found at http://www.waymarking.com/gallery/image.aspx?f=1&guid=175ac27f-4371-4b21-9f5f-79da68d0ac12)

In 1799, after a prolonged illness due to his own alcoholism, Handsome Lake experienced his first vision where he was visited by three spiritual messengers. Handsome Lake reports that these messengers warned him of the dangers of alcohol and that there were witches within his tribe creating chaos who must confess and repent. Furthermore, these three messengers also told Handsome Lake to spread these warnings to his people. It was at this point that Handsome Lake did quit drinking and spreading the message of Gai’wiio’ (the “Good Word”). Handsome Lake would go on to have more visions and several members of his family believed in the power of Handsome Lake’s visions and revelations, including Cornplanter himself, which in turn helped solidify Handsome Lake’s message. In time his message evolved to outline a very specific moral code that became known as the Code of Handsome Lake, which outlawed drunkenness, witchcraft, sexual promiscuity, wife beating and quarreling, amongst other things. It is thought that the reason Handsome Lake’s religion became so successful is because it was able to combine traditional Iroquois religious beliefs with white Christian values, and recognized the Six Nation people must make adjustments to their lives in their rapidly changing world.

Handsome Lake’s religion became so effective in causing reform for the Iroquois that President Thomas Jefferson wrote the following letter in 1802 to the Six Nation people, which helped solidify Handsome Lake’s right to teach and prophesy, and today, a copy of this letter can be found in the possession of every religious chief of the Six Nations:

Brothers–The President is pleased with seeing you all in good health, after so long a journey, and he rejoices in his heart that one of your own people has been employed to make yon sober, good and happy; and that he is so well disposed to give you good advice, and to set before you so good examples.

Brothers–If all the red people follow the advice of your friend and teacher, the Handsome Lake, and in future will be sober, honest, industrious and good, there can be no doubt but the Great Spirit will take care of you and make you happy.

What a traditional longhouse may have looked like

What a traditional longhouse may have looked like

Handsome Lake died in 1815 on the Onondaga Reservation in New York State and was considered a prophet at the time of his death. Once Handsome Lake passed away, there became six authorized “holders” of Gai’wiio’. Officially the Code of Handsome Lake was not formally published until around the year 1850, so from the time of his death until then, Handsome Lake’s moral code of living was simply communicated through these six original holders. As time went on, two factions began to emerge within the Iroquois; those that clung to the old order and traditional ways, and then the new order, which were those who followed Handsome Lake or Christianity. It is estimated that even by the end of the Civil War, the old order was nearly non-existent, so for the most part, by that time you were either a Christian or you followed Handsome Lake’s religion, which today is also synonymous with the Longhouse Religion. It is also is quite common for Native Americans to also use it as a verb and say “practicing Longhouse.” Due to the historical significance that a longhouse has with many Native Americans, particularly the Six Nations, Handsome Lake really wanted to make sure that despite moving on to reservations, the longhouse was still maintained. Through Handsome Lake, the longhouse saw a re-birth if you will and now became the designated place for spiritual worship. It is also important to say that today, longhouses are not your stereotypical literal long house made out of poles and bark, it is usually a very modern looking building.

Over time, those who were designated to proclaim the Gai’wiio’ evolved to be many more people than just six tribal elders. The stated times for the proclaiming of the Gai’wiio` are at the Six Nations’ meeting every September and at the midwinter thanksgiving in the moon Nîsko’wûkni:, between January 15th and February 15th. The time consumed in reciting the Gai’wiio` is always three days, mainly because everything stops at noon each day. The Iroquois believe that anything sacred must take place in the morning because at noon, the sun is in midheaven and then starts its descent. Handsome Lake commanded that each day must start with the preacher singing the Sun Song to insure good weather for the day. After this was completed, the preacher begins to recite the Gai’wiio` while standing at the fireplace which serves as the altar. Sitting beside him is usually an assistant who holds a white wampum strand. The congregation is usually seated in a double row of seats around the walls.

Grave site of Handsome Lake found on the Onondaga Indian Reservation

Grave site of Handsome Lake
found on the Onondaga Indian Reservation

Grave site of Handsome Lake found on the Onondaga Indian Reservation

Grave site of Handsome Lake
found on the Onondaga Indian Reservation

Chris and I actually drove out to the Onondaga Reservation, which is south of Syracuse, NY, to pay our respects to Handsome Lake. I have driven through a few Indian Reservations and they are all generally impoverished areas but Onondaga appeared even more disadvantaged than I had ever seen before. We did not have a clue exactly where Handsome Lake’s grave site was on the reservation, so we just drove around it for a while. Eventually we took a few turns and whamo, there it was in a very odd location. I mean, it was literally at the end of a driveway in-between two buildings. We got out of the car to look at it and as we took a few pictures, we could hear what sounded like singing in a foreign language. Where we were on the reservation definitely seemed like it may be the “center” since there were more buildings closer together than anywhere else. We walked closer to the singing and were able to see inside the building where it was coming from, but neither Chris nor I knew if it was public space where we could just walk in and since we were easily the only non-Native Americans to be seen, we decided not to press our luck. We also had no idea if it was an actual religious ceremony or it was just someone singing on their own. We returned to the grave of Handsome Lake where our car was and eventually proceeded to drive out of the reservation.

The religion that Handsome Lake created revolutionized the Iroquois Confederacy and today continues to be practiced by thousands. Today it is considered a traditional Native American religion. Chris and I always felt that this was a story that needed to be told, but we are also very cognizant that we actually are quite ignorant when it comes to the spiritual beliefs and observation of Native Americans. So we hope this post may help others understand where we were once a little confused, but we hope to continue exploring and learning of new Native American religious practices, so any help and suggestions out there from our readers would be greatly appreciated!


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  1. RaChaCha

    You guys never fail to find the most fascinating things to write about! Peter Jemison might be someone who could answer your questions about attending a Longhouse ceremony. I don’t have his contact information, but the Baobab Cultural Center might know how to reach him — or you could contact Ganondagan.

    I have experience with Canawaugus, as it’s adjacent to the Genesee Valley Greenway, a project I helped start. I’ve spent dozens of hours around the site. If you’re interested, I could hike around there with you guys one of these days.

    Happy Easter!

    1. Luke

      Thanks Alan! We actually have been to Ganondagan and may attempt to explore a few things there a little more and we also have heard of Peter Jemison, but have never met him personally. Funny what you said about Canawaugus because we actually considered walking around there a bit to see if we could find some buried treasure, so we would love to take you up on the offer to go take a hike there, just let us know when! Thanks for reading, see you soon.

  1. This Week’s New York History Web Highlights | The New York History Blog

    […] Six Nations: The Prophet Handsome Lake […]

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