Copyright © 2012 by the author. All rights reserved.
But the man wasn’t dead. Blacksnake soon discovered a warm spot on the sick man’s chest. Then the man began breathing again. The warm spot grew bigger and bigger, as if life was returning to the man’s body bit by bit. After two hours, the man finally opened his eyes and began to speak. He described a journey he had taken while he lay there, unconscious. In this vision, he met with messengers who spoke to him of the problems of his people, and the proper way to deal with them. No one knew it yet, but the journey the man took while he lay there, somewhere between life and death, was the first of a series of visitations he would have from the messengers. They would inspire, over the sixteen years the man had remaining to him, an entire philosophy—a code of life and conduct—that would change the historical course of his people. In the end, Handsome Lake would become known as a great prophet and the savior of the Seneca Nation.
* * *
Handsome Lake (ca. 1735–1815) was born Hadawa’ko (Shaking Snow) in the Seneca village of Conewaugus, located on the Genesee River near present-day Avon. Very little is known of his parents or his early life. He was born into the Wolf clan, although he was eventually raised by the Turtle clan.
When he was born, the Seneca—indeed, the entire Iroquois Confederacy—was at the height of its power and prosperity. But the fortunes of the Indians fell precipitously during the eighteenth century, and over the course of his life Handsome Lake would be both witness to and victim of this social and cultural decline. It is fair to say that the summer afternoon when Handsome Lake lay apparently dying was the lowest point of his life, and perhaps that of the life of his people as well.
The Iroquois Confederacy had continuously existed since the fourteenth century. Its constitution—The Great Law of Peace, an orally transmitted document—is one of the oldest constitutions in the world. It described a federal union of five (later six) Indian nations: Mohawk, Onondaga, Seneca, Oneida, Cayuga, and Tuscarora. The document (which was finally put into writing in 1915 by Arthur C. Parker, an archeologist and Indian specialist who worked for the State Museum of New York) is often mentioned along with the likes of the Magna Charta in terms of the greatest political documents in history.
It provided a framework for working out problems between its nation-members and described political and social systems that were balanced and largely egalitarian. Iroquois society was matrilineal, meaning that land ownership and ancestry were determined by tracing heritage through the mother’s line. The Iroquois are sometimes referred to as “the people of the longhouse,” the translation from the nation’s own word (haudenosaunee) for itself. (The word “Iroquois” is an appellation of French missionaries, and represents the way they heard the term hiro kone, meaning “I have spoken.” It was a ritual expression with which Iroquois typically ended their orations.) The tribe’s term for itself is based on their primary form of social and family organization: The longhouse. Ranging from twenty-five to four hundred feet long, these narrow, rectangular structures housed entire clans, traced along the maternal line. The longhouses were divided into compartments, with a long central hall. Each family had its own personal space of about 6’x9’. The structure typically held twenty or more families. Each clan had its own name, typically an animal name.
There was no “state” religion—each tribe was free to celebrate its own religious rites and festivals. Civil affairs were separate from religious affairs. This is not to suggest that there was an Iroquois idyll before first contact with the Europeans. Rather, the Iroquois had a highly developed, highly functional political and social system that would be shattered by its intersection with the founding of the new American nation.
Initial contacts between Europeans and the Iroquois were generally positive and relations remained friendly and respectful through the mid-eighteenth century. Though our Thanksgiving notions of Native Americans and white settlers sitting down to celebrate the fall harvest with a meal (complete with a cornucopia on the table) may be somewhat simplistic, there is a kernel of truth in that image. Many settlers relied on trade with the Indians for survival, and freely adopted those Indian customs, ideas, and modes of living that made adaptation to the New World easier.
During the colonial era, Indian leaders and statesmen met as equals to diplomatically solve problems. Good trade relationships were critical to the prosperity of the colonies, and this provided powerful incentives to alleviate strains in relations. Many early Americans also plainly admired the Indians. For instance, Benjamin Franklin, who served as an Indian commissioner, studied the Indian way of life, published accounts of treaty negotiations, and cited the Iroquois model in his arguments about relations between the British and the colonies. Franklin stressed the fact that the individual nations of the Confederacy managed their own internal affairs without interference from the Grand Council.
Other founding fathers like Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and George Washington were familiar with—and admiring of—the Iroquois’ federal form of government. Each nation was represented at the Confederate Council by one political leader and one war leader. The Confederacy included a system of checks and balances, with each nation holding veto power for certain actions. Each individual nation had a system for choosing its leaders, and there were impeachment provisions as well, ensuring that leaders governed in accordance with public consent. Much of this should be familiar to Americans, and for good reason: Historians have shown that the federal system of the U.S. government and the U.S. Constitution itself was patterned in part on the Iroquois system.
But the Iroquois system underwent a severe challenge with the outbreak of the American Revolution. Both the British and the Americans sought the allegiance—or at least the neutrality—of the Iroquois Confederacy. The Six Nations divided: Most Mohawk, Cayuga, Onondaga, and Seneca tribes chose to ally with the British, while most Oneida and Tuscarora tribes joined the American revolutionaries. In some sense, the American Revolution became a civil war for the Iroquois, and the divisions which precipitated the split would grow wider during the years of war, and go on to echo in internal Indian debates in the ensuing decades.
In particular, the results of the War of Independence would be disastrous for the Seneca, who not only chose the losing side, but stuck with it until the end. For instance, even after the British surrender at Saratoga, Loyalists and their Iroquois allies in upper New York continued to raid American settlements, as well as the villages of fellow Iroquois who had been allied with the revolutionaries. The Seneca chief Cornplanter led some of these raids, alongside Loyalist commanders, such John Butler (with whom “Indian” Allan served.)
In 1777 the Continental Congress, concerned that a major Indian war was imminent, decided to raise an army of 3,000 men to deal with the Indian problem on the frontier. Planning and preparations were slow, and it would take roughly another year to be brought to fruition. But the course of events during that year only hardened the resolve of the Americans. Indian–Loyalist attacks on settlers continued apace. There were some reprisals by American units already in the field, but the small number of available troops made it nearly impossible to offer an effective defense, or to thwart the ability of the Indians and Loyalists to mount attacks.
The turning point was a major Iroquois raid in November of 1778, when nearly 400 Indians, led by Cornplanter, launched on assault on a fort near Cherry Valley. The so-called Cherry Valley Massacre—in which approximately fifty soldiers and civilians died, with another eighty taken captive—forced the hand of the fledgling American government. General George Washington assigned Major General John Sullivan to lead the new force to deal with the Seneca.
The Sullivan Expedition, as this campaign would come to be known, was notorious for the toll it took on both sides. In the end, Colonel Sullivan had nearly 4,000 men at his command, and he drove them—and their horses—tirelessly. The village of Horseheads, in the Southern Tier of New York, acquired its name from an event during this campaign: The pack horses of Sullivan’s army, having hauled heavy military equipment for over 400 miles through difficult terrain, reached the end of their endurance in a little valley, and there the horses were slaughtered en masse. A few years later, horse skulls were arrayed along the trail by returning Native Americans, reportedly as a warning, or as a gesture of anger or defiance.
* * *
The devastation of the Sullivan Expedition created great hardship for more than 5,000 Iroquois refugees the following winter, and many starved or froze to death. And although General Washington was disappointed by what he perceived as the lack of a clear military verdict—there was only one major battle during the campaign—it nevertheless became clear in the long term that the victory of the new American nation over the Iroquois was complete. The infrastructure of the Iroquois Confederacy had been devastated. But the damage was much deeper and more long-lasting than physical losses. In the final analysis, the significance of the Sullivan Expedition is that it broke not only the means of the Iroquois Confederacy to defend its territory by making war, but its very will to do so. And as his nation’s will was broken, so was that of Handsome Lake. He, like so many of his compatriots, gave in to despair and to alcoholism.
Over the next decade, a series of treaties—with their predictable ex-post-facto claims and counter-claims—were executed, and while some small groups of Iroquois were moved onto reservations in the region, many more were moved to reservations in Canada and beyond the American frontier (which then meant west and north of Illinois, essentially.) After the Treaty of Paris was signed in 1783—formally ending the war between the British and the Americans—white settlers began moving west into New York, into areas made safe by the removal of Indians.
All of this led to critical issues for the Seneca, especially given the grim conditions on the reservations. The standard of living was abysmal, and there was rampant cultural and social breakdown: Alcoholism, domestic abuse, and the breakdown of families. There were accusations of witchcraft, as is so often the case in such conditions. Iroquois social structure was crumbling under reservation life and traditional religious practices were insufficient to meet the needs of the people. Until that summer day in 1799, it is perhaps fair to say that Handsome Lake had been as much a victim of these conditions as any other Seneca.
There is mysteriously (and frustratingly) little known about Handsome Lake’s life prior to his near-death experience and the visions that accompanied it. He was described by Buffalo Tom Jemison as a middle-sized man, slim, and unhealthy looking. He was a member of a noble family, though nothing is known about them (other than Cornplanter and Red Jacket.) Handsome Lake’s warrior name is unknown, as is the provenance of the name under which we know him. His name does appear on a 1794 treaty, but what role he might have played in the negotiations is unknown.
It is known, however, that after the loss of the bulk of Seneca lands in Genesee area, he went with members of his tribe to settlements on the Allegheny River. By many accounts, he was an alcoholic for some twenty years—and quite seriously ill, perhaps with the complications that often accompany end-stage alcoholism—for four years preceding the visions of 1799.
He was nursed in his illness by his married daughter and reportedly was able to do very little for himself. Some accounts suggest his bare-bones cabin was located quite close to the river, for he recalled hearing the drunken play—and fighting—of the raftsmen nearby. He thus had a long period of time in which he had little do but contemplate the effects of alcohol abuse, on his own life and on the lives of his tribesmen. In his Code, he refers again and again to the “demons” afflicting the Seneca, and alcohol is clearly the primary demon he has in mind.
On the summer afternoon when Handsome Lake woke from his coma, he immediately began describing his vision to the family and friends that had gathered in preparation for his funeral.
Handsome Lake said:
Never have I seen such a wondrous vision. I saw three men clothed in fine raiment, noble and commanding, cheeks painted red, only a few feathers in their bonnets. They had in one hand bows and arrows, in the other, huckleberry bushes and berries of every color.
The first messenger said: “He who created the world employed us to come to earth and go to the sick man and help him recover. Take these berries and eat of every color, for they will give you strength. Before noon, the people will gather at the council house and give you some early strawberries and they will make strawberry wine sweetened with sugar. They will drink the juice of the berry and thank the Great Spirit for your recovery.”
“When you are well, we will tell you how things ought to be upon the earth. For whatsoever you think is evil, is evil.”
And the second messenger said: “Behold! Look through the valley and between the two hills. Look between the sunrise and the noon. In that place, a man is buried who refused to obey the Great Spirit. He will never rise from that spot!”
“So now we say to you, proclaim the message we give you and tell it truly to all the people.”
And the third messenger said: “Now, the first thing has been finished and it remains for us to uncover all wickedness before you.”
And the first messenger said: “Now it time for our departure. We shall go on a journey. And then you will see the coming of the fourth messenger. And more: You will see the house of the punisher and the lands of the Great Spirit.”
* * *
In addition to telling Handsome Lake that he would recover, and why they appeared, the messengers clearly promised that they would return with more messages from the Great Spirit. This seemed to have had an immediate effect on Handsome Lake: He would proclaim that he was cured of his alcoholism on this day. And his life seems to have changed in another crucial respect: He had a new purpose in life, as a teacher and prophet. He began preaching what he called Gaiwiio (the good word), and his life from this day on would be dedicated to bringing the message of the Great Spirit (via the messengers) to the Seneca, and taking an active role in improving the lives of his people.
The dream vision of this June day was only the first—if most dramatic—of a series of three or four visitations Handsome Lake would have over the next few years. He would also be visited by the spirits of John the Baptist, as well as a number of Jesus’ disciples. The lessons Handsome Lake took from the visions would be compiled into The Code of Handsome Lake. The document (as taken down in translation) had some 15 sections, in the form of anecdotes which illustrated particular points. One example:
Now the Great Spirit ordained that people should live to an old age: He appointed that when a woman becomes old she should be without strength and unable to work. Now the Great Spirit says that it is a great wrong to be unkind to our grandmothers. The Great Spirit forbids unkindness to the old. We, the messengers, say it. The Great Spirit appointed it this way: He designed it so that an old woman should be as a child again and when she becomes so, the Creator wishes the grandchildren to help her; for only because she is, they are. Whosoever does right to the aged does right in the sight of the Creator.
For Handsome Lake, the first issue at hand was to condemn the use of the white man’s one’ga, meaning whiskey. Since first contact, alcohol abuse had made serious inroads in the life of his nation, threatening its very extinction. As Arthur C. Parker described the situation:
“The frauds which the Six Nations had suffered, the loss of land and of ancient seats had reduced them to poverty and disheartened them. The crushing blow of Sullivan's campaign was yet felt and the wounds then inflicted were fresh. The national order of the Confederacy was destroyed. Poverty, the sting of defeat, the loss of ancestral homes, the memory of broken promises, and the hostility of the white settlers all conspired to bring despair. There is not much energy in despairing nations who see themselves hopeless and alone, the greedy eyes of their conquerors fastened on the few acres that remain to them. It was little wonder that the Indian sought forgetfulness in the trader's rum.”
Many of the lessons in the Code address social or cultural problems, and impart what might be called middle-class values: Young people should marry, and be kind and faithful to one another, and good to their children. They should not gossip, or practice witchcraft, or drink alcohol. In all, the sentiments expressed are strikingly similar to the Biblical Ten Commandments. There is some evidence that Handsome Lake might have been familiar with the Bible: One story holds that his nephew Henry Obail (Abeal), who had been educated at a white institution in Philadelphia, took Handsome Lake up into the mountains and explained the Christian Bible to him. Handsome Lake might also have acquired some knowledge of the Bible from missionaries as well. At any rate, the Code, like the Bible, forbade drunkenness, witchcraft, and sexual promiscuity, wife beating, quarreling, and gambling.
But this is not to suggest that the Code wasn’t revolutionary in its own way, for not only did it come from a Seneca, but Handsome Lake addressed the internal social ills that he believed were destroying Seneca culture just as surely as the intrusion of the white man. He took on such taboo topics such as child sexual abuse, spousal abuse, adultery, divorce, and abortion. Significantly, Handsome Lake addressed the men in his society in the same way that some modern groups like Promise Keepers and Concerned Black Men call on the males of their communities to be good husbands and fathers.
Other parts of the Code dealt with the practicalities of life. In particular, Handsome Lake argued that the Seneca should give up the nomadic way of life and adopt an agricultural lifestyle. This is another example of his advocacy of what might be called middle-class values, even what would become the American dream: A farm, a home, and family. He advocated practical, orderly self-sufficiency and sober living.
It is clear that Handsome Lake was in critical ways a realist. He believed that the white man was here to stay, and that the Seneca could not survive and prosper by fighting the larger culture or falling into the trap of blaming the intruders for their conditions. This set him on a collision course with factions of his own community, as well as for openly discussing these difficult issues within the Seneca nation. This was a middle way: neither a capitulation to Christianity nor an unreasoning hold on the traditional past.
In fact, Handsome Lake’s message was a masterful blend of the old and new. In order to appreciate the effect that Handsome Lake had on his people, it is perhaps necessary to point out that the Iroquois of the Great Lakes region had always considered dreams to be a guide to their lives. Their dreams influenced many decisions, from where to hunt or fish to where and when to make war or undertake marriage. Dreaming was believed to be a period in which the individual was in contact with the sacred power, and messages received during that time were taken with utmost seriousness. To ignore these messages was to court illness, madness, or disaster. In fact, the Iroquois paid particular attention to dreams on the eve of big events, like war and hunting, and war parties were known to turn back if one of its members had an ominous dream.
For this reason, it may be fair to say that Handsome Lake’s followers took his dreams, or visions, as seriously as he did. His dreams also represented answers to questions they were facing that were as equally momentous as war and hunting—that is, issues of the life and death of the nation.
In 1802, Handsome Lake visited Washington, D.C. with a delegation of Seneca and Onondaga chiefs, and his work drew the attention of U.S. President Thomas Jefferson, who wrote a letter to Handsome Lake that concluded:
Go on then, brother, in the great reformation you have undertaken. Persuade our red brethren then to be sober, and to cultivate their lands; and their women to spin and weave for their families. You will soon see your women and children well fed and clothed, your men living happily in peace and plenty, and your numbers increasing from year to year. It will be a great glory to you to have been the instrument of so happy a change, and your children's children, from generation to generation, will repeat your name with love and gratitude forever. In all your enterprises for the good of your people, you may count with confidence on the aid and protection of the United States, and on the sincerity and zeal with which I am myself animated in the furthering of this humane work. You are our brethren of the same land; we wish your prosperity as brethren should do. Farewell.
This letter is a remarkable document, for it shows Thomas Jefferson’s respect for the Indians, and his willingness and hope of working with them to achieve peace and a good relationship. It also served as an endorsement of Handsome Lake’s activities and program, and copies of it were given to each of the Chiefs of the Six Nations.
* * *
Handsome Lake, like countless recovered addicts and social reformers, could sometimes be unreasoning and overzealous. This is particularly true when it came to the question of witchcraft among the Seneca.
By some accounts, Handsome Lake became obsessed with witch hunting and demanded confessions from those whom he suspected of witchcraft. There is evidence that some of those who refused to confess were killed, on his orders. His obsession nearly started a war with another tribe when he accused one its members of being a witch, and demanded that tribal leaders punish the young man. His obsessive hunting of witches began to cost him support among his people, and his popularity declined for a period.
According to one account, when he first arrived at Tonawanda, Handsome Lake was so discouraged that he was reluctant to talk about his visions and beliefs. Over time, however, people became friendlier, and he resumed his teachings. He was invited to visit the Onondaga and he accepted the invitation, although “according to his visions it necessitated the singing of his ‘third song,’ which meant that he would die.” But in another vision, the messengers said: "They have stretched out their hands, pleading for you to come and they are your own people at Onondaga."
So Handsome Lake and some followers started to walk to the Onondaga, and the numbers increased as they neared the destination, as people began to hear about his prediction of his own death. Handsome Lake had more visions along the way, each containing omens of his own death. He reportedly grew more and more depressed, even fearful. He was so distressed that upon arrival he was unable to address those who came to hear him saying, "I will soon go to my new home. Soon will I step into the new world, for there is a plain pathway before me leading there."
He then went to his cabin, attended by three persons, who swore to keep all the details of his death secret. On August 10, 1815, Handsome Lake "commenced his walk" over the path that had appeared before him. He was buried under a nearby council house, with impressive ceremonial rites. His tomb may still be seen there. It is marked by a granite monument erected by the Six Nations to Sedwa'gowa'ne: Our Great Teacher.
* * *
Despite Handsome Lake’s excesses and failings, he had a profound and lasting impact on the life of the Seneca, and of the entire Iroquois nation. As the noted Indian scholar Arthur C. Parker wrote, “Handsome Lake helped to give the Iroquois a social and cultural identity that drew on the best of their traditional past, yet allowed them to turn their attention to finding a new way to live within the larger nation in which they now found themselves.”
Handsome Lake's Code was so successful because it combined traditional Iroquois values and cultural forms with white and Christian values that allowed the Indians to adapt to their new circumstances. It emphasized practical strategies for survival without requiring the sacrifice of an Indian identity.
Handsome Lake’s teachings long outlived him. Beginning in the 1820s, it became traditional for the Code to be recited every September at Tonawanda, and biannually at other reservations in connection with the beginning of Six Nation meetings. The Code of Handsome Lake was eventually compiled and translated from interviews with descendants of Handsome Lake and published in 1913, ensuring that his teachings remain a part of Iroquois culture.
Reprinted from Michael Keene's book Folklore and Legends of Rochester, The Mystery of Hoodoo Corner.