by Chris Clemens
The majority of our explorations throughout the Burned Over District have been to locales that have given us first hand experiences with a belief system. Of course, not every stop has included a mass or service, but for the most part, we’ve been able to visit a physical place to help learn more about the ideologies.
We’ve always wanted the opportunity to more deeply explore the beliefs of those who called this region home, prior to the introduction of European cultures. There are a few road blocks to applying the same methods for learning about Native American spirituality that we have used for all of the other beliefs you’ve read about here. Regardless, the story of Handsome Lake and the revolutionary impact he had on the Iroquois is far too important to leave off the queue.
To start, many of the beliefs that the Iroquois hold regarding spirituality aren’t confined to a space. While most religions have a place of worship they consider sacred, the Iroquois found sacred importance in literally every space. A spiritual ceremony doesn’t have to take place in a particular spot, because the Earth itself is sacred.
Furthermore, the Iroquois, or Haudenosaunee (People of the Long House) is essentially a band of tribes formed by an agreement among the Mohawks, Oneidas, Onondagas, Cayugas, Senecas, and later the Tuscaroras. Each tribe had customs and practices and sometimes merging those didn’t go smoothly. So, to say that there was particular spirituality practiced among the Haudenosaunee would be nearly impossible. Adding to that complication is the decentralization of native culture–the result of European colonization.
Today, about two thirds of the estimated 125,000 Iroquois live in the United States and the remaining population in Canada. Together they comprise the oldest living participatory democracy on Earth. The stories and history of the Haudenosaunee are told in museums and books throughout the region. Indeed, sharing stories of exploring the history here could be a project in itself. For today though, the story of one Seneca man, Handsome Lake is one that we wanted to learn more of.
A Prophet is Born in the Finger Lakes
Handsome Lake, or Ganioda’yo, was in 1735 in the Seneca village of Conewaugus (presently near Avon, New York). During his early life, the Six Nations were experiencing a tumultuous upheaval in their way of life. A constant battle ensued with Europeans wanting land, and Senecas were always needing to relocate their families. Handsome Lake’s heritage lies with a rather noteworthy family of Seneca Indians. He is the half-brother of Cornplanter, who was a Seneca war chief that fought alongside the British in the American Revolution. Handsome Lake’s nephew was the famed Red Jacket, the Six Nations representative at the Treaty of Canandaigua that helped secure lands for the Seneca after America won the war.
The constant flux of relocation and rebuilding of community caused some erosion within the once powerful and centralized Senecas. As things got tougher, financial hardships set in and many within the community turned to alcohol for comfort–including Handsome Lake.
One late night in 1799, Handsome Lake was fighting a bout of illness caused by his own alcoholism. Amidst a deep dream, he was visited by three spiritual messengers. He later told that the messengers warned him that alcohol would ruin him and his people if they continued. He was told of witches within the tribe that were there to create chaos and needed to repent. They urged him within his dreamstate to warn his people of these dangers, as well. When he awoke, Handsome Lake did indeed stop drinking and began to carry the message of Gai’wiio’ (the “Good Word”).
His dreamstate visions didn’t end, though. Members of the tribe listened to his stories they began to see the positive changes in Handsome Lake’s life. He soon had followers seeking his wisdom, which inspired a more organized set of guidelines to be laid out. The set of visions gave birth to what is now known as the Code of Handsome Lake, and it outlawed drunkenness, witchcraft, sexual promiscuity, domestic violence and quarreling. In many ways, the Code adopted concepts from both traditional Iroquois beliefs as well as the Christian values brought by settling Europeans.
The Code became so widely recognized as an effective tool for bridging two communities of people, that President Thomas Jefferson crafted a letter in 1802 to the Six Nation people. The move gave credence to Handsome Lake’s teachings in both the Iroquois community as well as the incoming settlers forming America. To date, each religious chief of the Six Nations maintains a copy of the letter. It reads:
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.
Throughout time, the Iroquois grew somewhat divided over how to practice religion and apply guidelines for living. Some felt the traditional beliefs were at the core of their culture and should be maintained, while others acclimated to more of a western sense of spirituality. Even still, many followed Handsome Lake’s new ideas which today is referred to as the Longhouse Religion. His thought in maintaining the concept of the longhouse within the culture of spirituality was to offset the division created by single family dwellings and maintain a sense of community among the Six Nations.
A Legacy, Forever
At the time of his death in 1815, Handsome Lake was considered a savior in many ways. He passed at home and among his followers on the Onondaga Reservation in Central New York where he still rests.
After he died, six representatives were chosen to protect and share the Gai-wiio’ among the community. Though the Code of Handsome Lake was published somewhere around 1850, the tradition of sharing within the community by the six elders continues. Today, thousands of followers of the Longhouse Religion continue to practice a way of life in the same manner that Handsome Lake instructed over 200 years ago.
*This post previously appeared on www.ExploringTheBurnedOverDistrict.com*
Chris Clemens is the Founder/Publisher of Exploring Upstate. From his hometown in Rochester, he spends as much time as possible connecting with the history, culture, and places that make Upstate New York a land of discovery. Follow him on Twitter at @cpclemens