Seneca prophet Handsome Lake (ca. 1735-1815) played a major role in the revival of his own and other Iroquois League tribes.
Handsome Lake, a great leader and prophet, played a major role in the revival of the Senecas and other tribes of the Iroquois League. He preached a message that combined traditional Iroquois religious beliefs with specific white values. This message was eventually published as the Code of Handsome Lake.
Handsome Lake was born around 1735 in the Seneca village of Conewaugus, located on the Genesee River near Avon, New York. Very little is known of his parents. He was born into the Wolf clan and was named Hadawa'ko ["Shaking Snow"], but was eventually raised by the Turtle clan people. He was a half-brother to Cornplanter and an uncle of Red Jacket. Born during a time when the Seneca nation was at its peak of prosperity, Handsome Lake witnessed the gradual deterioration of his society.
Multiple factors led to the erosion of morale and the material welfare of the Iroquois. In the period after the American Revolution, the Iroquois lost most of their land and were forced to live on reservations. The reservations provided poor living conditions, and, within a relatively short period of time, many Iroquois began to suffer alcohol abuse, fighting, instability of the family unit, and accusations of witchcraft. This dismal situation was due, in part, to the basic incompatibility of the Iroquois social structure and reservation existence. The traditional religious rituals alone were inadequate to lessen the harshness of this situation. As a result, the Iroquois began searching for new solutions to their difficulties.
In 1799, after a period of illness due to many years of excessive alcoholic indulgence, Handsome Lake had the first of a series of visions. In his first vision, he was warned by three spiritual messengers about the dangers associated with alcohol; he was also told that witches were creating chaos within his tribe and that the persons guilty of witchcraft must repent and confess. Handsome Lake was directed to reveal these warnings to the people. His nephew Blacksnake and half-brother Cornplanter were with him during this time and believed in the power of his visions and their revelations. Shortly after Handsome Lake's first vision, he ceased drinking alcohol. When he regained his health, he began bringing a message of Gaiwiio (the "Good Word") to his people. He preached against drunkenness and other evil practices. His message outlined a moral code that was eventually referred to as the Code of Handsome Lake. The Code outlawed drunkenness, witchcraft, sexual promiscuity, wife beating, quarreling, and gambling. Handsome Lake presented his message along with a threat that fire would destroy the world if this Code was not obeyed.
Handsome Lake soon became obsessed with witch hunting and demanded confessions from those whom he suspected of witchcraft; some of those who refused to confess were killed. His witch hunting nearly became a catalyst for war with another tribe when he accused a prominent young man from that tribe of being a witch and demanded his punishment. Gradually, the sentiment of the people turned against Handsome Lake for what they considered an overzealous pursuit of witches. As a result of this change in attitude, he stopped his accusatory methods and briefly assumed a less prominent leadership role. Handsome Lake once again became popular during the War of 1812 and attracted many new followers.
The rise of Handsome Lake's religion was more successful than most religions during that time, apparently because his code combined traditional Iroquois religion with white Christian values. It stressed survival without the sacrifice of the Iroquois identity, and recognized the realistic need to make adjustments in order to survive in their changing world. The Code of Handsome Lake, published around 1850, played a significant role in the preservation of the Iroquois cultural heritage and was popular throughout the Iroquois nations in Canada and in the United States. Handsome Lake, referred to as Sedwa'gowa'ne, "Our Great Teacher, " died on August 10, 1815, at the Onondaga Reservation. His religious beliefs were carried on by Blacksnake and other disciples, and his teachings remain a compelling force among the Iroquois.
Dockstader, Frederick J., Great North American Indians, New York, VanNostrand Reinhold Co., 1977; 102-103.
Leitch, Barbara A., Chronology of the American Indian, St. Clair Shores, Michigan, Scholarly Press, 1975; 138.
Waldman, Carl, Who Was Who in Native American History, Facts On File, Maple-Vail Book Mfg. Group, 1990; 144.
Wallace, Anthony F. C., "Origins of the Longhouse Religion, " in Handbook of North American Indians, edited by William C. Sturtevant, Smithsonian Institution, 1978; 445-448.