February 1995

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Handsome Lake

The Iroqouis Who Saw Visions


Alfred G. Hilbert

Iroqouis Traditions

The late 18th and early 19th centuries were a time when the native Americans of this area were being displaced from their lands by settlers pushing west from the seaboard. The Indian culture was overwhelmed by a different life style that many of the redmen could not understand. It was a period of great demoralization for the Iroquois. Some, like the orator Red Jacket (1756-1830), held out for the old traditions and mistrusted the white men. Red Jacket with his eloquence challenged the missionaries who came among the redmen:

"Brother our seats were once large and yours were small. You have now become a great people, and we have scarcely a place left to spread our blankets. You have got our country, but are not satisfied: You want to force your religion upon us.
"Brother…you say that you are sent to instruct us how to worship the Great Spirit agreeably to his mind, and, if we do not take hold of the religion which you white people teach, we shall be unhappy hereafter. You say that you are right and we are lost. How do we know this to be true? We understand that your religion is written in a book. If it was intended for us as well as you, why has not the Great Spirit given it to us…why did he not give to our forefathers, the knowledge of that book, with the means of understanding it right?… How shall we know when to believe, being so often deceived by the white people?
"…You say there is but one way to worship and serve the Great Spirit. If there is but one religion, why do you white people differ so much about it? Why [are] not all agreed, as you can all read the book?
"…We are told that your religion was given to your forefathers, and has been handed down from father to son. We also have a religion, which was given to our forefathers, and has been handed down to us their children to be thankful for all the favors we receive: To love each other, and to be united. We never quarrel about religion.
"…The Great Spirit has made us all, but he has made a great difference between his white and red children. He has given us different complexions and different customs…Since he has made so great a difference between us in other things, why may we not conclude that he has given us a different religion according to our understanding?…
"…We do not wish to destroy your religion, or take it from you. We only want to enjoy our own.
"…We are told that you have been preaching to the white people in this place. These people are our neighbors…We will wait a little while, and see what effect your preaching has upon them. If we find it does them good, makes them honest and less disposed to cheat Indians, we will then consider again of what you have said."

Again he told another missionary, "Preach to the whites of this area and we will wait. Let us know the tree by its blossoms and the blossoms by its fruits. When this is clear, we will listen to you."

Red Jacket was born at Canoga, New York, and lived from 1756 until 1830. He was a chief of the Wolf Clan but he was not a warrior and was even considered a physical coward by his own people, yet he was respected as an orator for his quick wit and debating ability, and for his tenacious memory. The British in admiration gave him a scarlet officer's coat: hence his English name.

Red Jacket as a staunch conservative became the advocate of the ancient faith and the institutions of his people. He disliked and distrusted missionaries, both white and red, and he opposed all educational, industrial and religious efforts to better his people. Unfortunately, his egotistical and narrow-minded outlook made him fail to see the futility of fighting the progress of time and events.

In defense of his belief, he said, "The Great Spirit will not punish us for what we do not know. These black coats talk to the Great Spirit and ask that we may see as they do, when they are blind themselves and quarrel about the light that guides them. These things we do not understand."

The basic religion of the redman had been the maintenance of harmony between Man and Nature. The coming of the white men brought to this simple personal religious concept a perplexing problem. The northern and eastern Indians were exposed to the conflicting views of the French Franciscan and Jesuit priests; of the various splinter groups of protestantism: the Puritans, Presbyterians, and Episcopalians; and of those of the Quakers and the German sects like the Moravians.

No wonder the Indians were confused and no wonder they asked, "If there is but one religion, why do you white people differ so much about it?"

Although all the sects gained some conversions, the Moravians were the most successful. The Quakers were the most respected, perhaps because the Quaker belief that God exists in man himself fitted best with the ancient Indian personal dealings with the Divine.

There is no word for our concept of religion in any of the Indian languages. They had no churches, priests or Sabbath days.

The Indians did hold seasonal festivals which were religious as well as social occasions.

Their most important observance, the Mid-Winter Festival took place late in January on the fifth day after the second new moon after the winter solstice. To quote their words: "When the moon is full at midnight." It lasted about three days and was dedicated to Teharonhiawagon, the "God of Life." Longfellow, in his epic poem, was confused and assumed the spirit Teharonhiawagon and the man, Hiawatha, were one and the same, and has given us a grossly distorted attempt at Indian folklore.

The redmen felt that Teharonhiawagon periodically became tired and weakened by his continuous fight with his evil twin brother. By their mid-winter rites of thanksgiving, their dancing, and their confession of past sins, the Indians believed he would be revitalized and encouraged to continue his fight during the new year. The ceremonies designed to give their god a boost in morale, did the same for them.

This primary festival was followed by the Maple Sap Festival, the Spring Planting Festival, the Strawberry Festival, the Green Corn Festival, and finally, the Harvest Festival. These were usually of shorter duration.

The Maple Sap Festival was to give thanks for making the snows disappear and for the returning Spring which caused the sweet water to flow from the maples.

The Spring Planting Festival was to give thanks for the budding of the plants and the warming of the earth to receive seed. This took place when the dogwood trees were in bloom.

The Strawberry Festival recognized the first fruit of the year as a sign of the Creator's promise to provide for the coming year. Strawberries were believed to be the Creator's favorite fruit; the paths through heaven were bordered by strawberry plants.

The Green Corn Festival celebrated the peak of the growing season and the abundance of fresh foods of all kinds.

The final festival, the Harvest Festival, was akin to our Thanksgiving. It was an appreciation of an abundance of foods stored for the coming winter.

Their prayers of praise and thanks were directed to the sun, the moon, and the main spirits of Nature. Dancing was for them a form of prayer. Men, women and children participated and it was believed to be the ultimate expression of praise and, therefore, pleasing to the divine spirits.

The Indian outlook was partly fatalistic, and it became more so from their inability to prevent the encroachment of their land.

The acquisitiveness of the white men, their ambition for personal gain, their defiant assertion of individual conscience and mistrust of authority, and their insistence on property rights to land and its products were personal traits strange to the natives. Even when the whites didn't swindle the redmen, few of the Indians could comprehend the values of the settlers. The white attitudes seemed completely at odds with the traditions of the redmen.

And the settlers were sweeping the natives aside, killing them, or herding them into reservations. Many of the redmen drank the white man's whiskey as their only relief.

One who drank too much was Handsome Lake (Ga-Nya-Di-Yah), a Seneca of the Turtle Clan, born in 1735 near Avon, New York. He was the half brother of Cornplanter, and had been one of the Indians who had signed the Pickering Treaty in 1794, along with Cornplanter and Red Jacket.

Handsome Lake led a dissipated life until at the age of 64 in 1799, friendless and even shunned by all his relatives except his daughter, he lay ill and near death in his bare cabin along the Allegheny River on the Cattaraugus reservation. Some records say he had been in this dissolute condition for about four years.

One day, his daughter saw him collapse and presumed him dead. Funeral arrangements were started and all relatives summoned. As the body was being prepared, one man noticed a warm spot and gradually the whole body became warm.

When Handsome Lake revived he announced that he had been visited by three radiant men who gave him a message for his people. In his stupor brought on by alcohol and his weakened condition, he may have had hallucinations.

On his recovery Handsome Lake went from village to village to spread his new convictions. He was no orator but he was earnest and he was persistent. He went forth to the adjacent reservations to tell the story of his visions and to proclaim the Gai-Wiio, the "Divine Message" or "Good Tidings."

Handsome Lake's Message

In spite of ridicule and criticism he did manage to attract audiences of his people. His code condemned drunkenness, witchcraft, evil gossip, vanity and false pride. He preached love, understanding, constancy in marriage and responsible family life. He encouraged large families and gave special emphasis to the care of children. Mothers and mothers-in-law were told not to interfere in the domestic affairs of their children's families. The matriarchal family with its easy divorce was to be replaced.

Handsome Lake advised his people that their old practice of expecting the women to do all of the food growing, while the men only hunted, would no longer sustain them. He discouraged the former worship of animals in nature and argued that land was essential for their prosperity and that they should not sell their land to the settlers. Farming was no longer to be considered effeminate—men were encouraged to plow, plant, and harvest. They should learn husbandry from the white men.

Handsome Lake gained a following in the reservations in the western half of New York. Within two years the sobering effect of his teaching had become noticeable. Handsome Lake was invited to Washington and was given a letter of commendation by president Thomas Jefferson.

Seven years later the Quakers acknowledged and praised him for the decline of alcoholism among the New York Indians.

Handsome Lake preached until his death in 1815. His message was repeated through the years, especially at the Mid-Winter Festivals. In 1900 a meeting of disciples from four reservations in New York and two in Canada was held to agree on a standard version of Handsome Lake's moral teachings and to transcribe it into the Seneca language. Some of the sheets of paper carrying the new version were lost and another meeting was held in 1903. This time Chief Edward Cornplanter recited the visions of Handsome Lake, and William Blue-Sky interpreted his account to produce both an Iroquois and an English written version for preservation in the New York State archives.

The Three Visions

Handsome Lake had said that he had had three separate visions.

When the first occurred on June 15, 1799 he heard his name called. On going out, he beheld three radiant persons. Each bore a bow in one hand and in the other a huckleberry with berries of many colors. They had been sent, he was told, because he had been thinking of the Creator and genuinely wished to better himself and mankind.

Handsome Lake was invited to eat some of the berries and make a brew of the rest. This would put him to sleep and make him well. On recovery he was to drink the juice of wild strawberries. He and his people were to celebrate the Strawberry Festival and to drink strawberry juice as a sign of thanks to the Creator. The wild strawberry was a sacred plant in heaven and its juice had medicinal value.

The radiant men said they were a group of four messengers but only three were present as the fourth had returned to tell the Creator that he, Handsome Lake, had accepted their help and advice and had agreed to be the bearer of Gai-Wiio, the glad tidings.

Now that he was well again they would give him the message from the Creator:

The redmen were to completely abstain from alcohol.
All practices of witchcraft and charms were to be abandoned.
Married people should live together—children should grow from and with them.
Abortion was barred—women were ordained to bear children.
Childless couples should adopt children.
Parents were to love, guide and keep children in good health.
Children should not be abused but they should obey their parents.
Marriage is mutual love and understanding—in-laws should not interfere.
The elderly are to be respected.

Handsome Lake said that on August 8, 1799, he had had a second vision and learned more that he must tell his people:

Food must be shared not only in the home but with less fortunate individuals.
Gossip, vanity and petty thievery are evil.
Education is highly desirable—particularly the study of language and the ways of the whites—their practice of helping one another in major jobs and the closeness of their families.
Rulers and respected people should debate, not quarrel. Their responsibilities are to do good and, therefore, their sins are greater than those of the common people.

Six months later Handsome Lake said he was told in still another vision that each body has a soul which has its own destiny and identity and can leave the living body, acquire wisdom and come back to advise the body through visions.

In his final vision, Handsome Lake related that he was taken on a trip up the Milky Way, The Pathway of Souls, to the forks at the far end. Here, the souls are separated to go to heaven or hell. The road to hell was broad and easy; the road to heaven, rough and rocky. On this trip he met the fourth messenger, a man with pierced hands and feet plus a spear wound in his side.

In his successive visions Handsome Lake added more of the beliefs of the Christians, and in his preaching he combined the traditional beliefs of the native Americans with the religious faiths of the missionaries. Perhaps he did this to encourage his people to accommodate themselves to the inevitable ways of the whites.

If Handsome Lake invented his visions as a way to gain an audience, he used his revelations to give sensible and usable advice: to stop destroying themselves with whiskey and indolence, and to avoid preying on each other through thievery and quarreling. First, be kind and thoughtful to each other and especially to children. He used the powerful animal instinct of support for the young to initiate self-improvement.

What better inspiration could there be for forlorn people than the example of one of their own who had been a drunkard and had made himself into a prophet of the good life?

Adapted from a lecture prepared by Alfred G. Hilbert in July 1980, and revised in 1989 which he titled, Handsome Lake or The Reformed Drunkard Who Talked with Angels.


Listed By A. G. Hilbert for information on Handsome Lake and the Iroquois

Parker on the Iroquois by Fenton

Iroquois Ceremonial of Midwinter by Elizabeth Tooker

Legends of the Iroquois (Cornplanter) by Wm. W. Canfield

Indians of Eastern Woodlands by Sally Sheppard

Iroquois Culture by Edith Drumm

Iroquois Folklore by Beauchamp

History of New York Iroquois by Beauchamp (NYS Bulletin #78, 1905)

Long House of Iroquois by Spencer L. Adams

White Woman and Her Valley by Arch Merrill

Handbook of North American Indians, Volume 15, by Sturtevant

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