HANDSOME LAKE (1735–1815) was a Seneca shaman, prophet, and sachem of the Six Nations of the Iroquois; known in Iroquois as Ganioʿ Daí Ioʿ. He was born on the Genesee River opposite modern-day Avon, Livingston County, New York. Handsome Lake's life mirrors the history of the Iroquois people. Born at the zenith of Iroquois power and influence, he participated in major battles against Indian and American opponents and witnessed his people's loss of land and pride following the Revolutionary War. He later suffered a debilitating illness, exacerbated by bouts of drunkenness, but was revivified by a series of dream-vision experiences and led the way to a national revitalization of Indian values.
Early in 1799 Handsome Lake was confined to bed with a serious illness and seemed near death. During a series of dream-vision experiences in June and August 1799 he received many messages from the Creator through four intermediaries whom the prophet referred to as the Four Messengers or the Four Angels. They instructed him about his mission, guided him on a sky journey to the land of the damned and the blessed, and promised him shamanic powers. Handsome Lake recovered, and his sense of physical and spiritual rebirth intensified as he preached and worked for reform.
The earliest messages the prophet received condemned alcohol, witchcraft, abortion, and charms. The Creator was also displeased with wife beating and desertion by husbands, as well as by adultery, undisclosed multimarriages, interference in marriages by mothers-in-law, and the neglect and abuse of children and the elderly. Such activities reflected a serious breakdown in the traditional Iroquois way of life. Handsome Lake now called for a breakup of the longhouse dwelling and instituted the building of single-family houses following the Quaker model. More radically, he preached that men must give up their rapidly declining occupations of hunting and waging war and instead take up farming, the traditional domain of women. At the same time, he warned against the private ownership of property as destructive of traditional Iroquois values, and he encouraged cooperative farming and other communal activities. He also condemned the cruelty to farm animals evident among many whites. Fearful of the corrosive effects of white education on Iroquois traditions, he said that only a few Iroquois children should be educated, and those for the express purpose of enabling the Iroquois to deal with the whites in legal and political matters.
As a prophet, Handsome Lake differed from the Native American cultic and nativistic prophets. The cultic prophets claimed that renewal would occur only when the people returned to the sacrifices and rituals they had neglected. The divine would then send forth its power and restore them. The nativistic prophets proclaimed that the whites would be destroyed if the people rejected all white influences and returned to the old ways. In contrast, Handsome Lake was an ethical-eschatological prophet. He spoke in the name of a transcendent moral being who was seriously displeased with the sins of his people and would either reward them or punish them after death depending on whether they reformed themselves. The Creator did not promise that the whites would be destroyed or driven away but rather said that personal and social reforms would enable the Iroquois to be strong enough to maintain their own independence and to survive in a world increasingly controlled by whites. Rejecting both the assimilationism of the Mohawk Joseph Grant and the nativism of the Seneca Red Jacket, Handsome Lake presented the Iroquois with the will of the Creator: They must either accept the gaiwiio ("good word"), that is, the revelations and injunctions received by Handsome Lake, by repenting their deeds and embracing personal and social reform, or be lost in both a personal-eschatological and a sociohistorical sense.
Unlike the biblical prophets, Handsome Lake's concern with ethical behavior and eschatology was not accompanied by a desacralization of nature. Although he rejected any cultic prescription for the ills of his people, Handsome Lake affirmed as integral to the Iroquois tradition the necessity of maintaining correct relationships with the spirit forces through ceremonial life. Only by enacting the moral and socioeconomic reforms enjoined by the gaiwiio could the Indian tradition be fully effective.
Corresponding to Handsome Lake's integration of eschatological and cosmic elements was his idea of the holy as both a transcendent moral being and an immanent presence and power. The present-day Longhouse religion, or Handsome Lake religion, while basing itself on the prophet's teachings, incorporates them into a religious structure that includes shamanic institutions and practices, agricultural and gathering ceremonies, and organizational meetings such as the Six Nations Conference.
Fenton, William N., ed. Parker on the Iroquois. Syracuse, N.Y., 1968. Contains a short life of Handsome Lake along with an English translation of the gaiwiio as recited by Edward Cornplanter.
St. John, Donald P. "The Dream-Vision Experience of the Iroquois: Its Religious Meaning." Ph.D. diss., Fordham University, 1981. Places Handsome Lake's dream-visions and their impact within an Iroquois religious history largely influenced by dreams. Examines his shamanic and prophetic roles and the implications of the acceptance of his message as normative revelation.
Tooker, Elisabeth. "On the New Religion of Handsome Lake." Anthropological Quarterly 41 (October 1968): 187–200. Explains the success of Handsome Lake and his choice of values in terms of the economic and social changes in moving from a mixed hunting-gathering-agricultural way of life to a heavily agricultural one. Questions Wallace's revitalization model.
Wallace, Anthony F. C. "Cultural Composition of the Handsome Lake Religion." In Symposium on Cherokee and Iroquois Culture, edited by William N. Fenton and John Gulick. Washington, D.C., 1961. Examines the themes and values found in the teachings of Handsome Lake and relates his activities to the founding of the Handsome Lake religion. Sees the prophet's success in terms of its response to the demoralized condition of the Seneca.
Wallace, Anthony F. C. The Death and Rebirth of the Seneca. New York, 1972. A thorough study of the history of the Seneca, containing valuable excerpts from Quaker journals relating to Handsome Lake's early visions. Treats extensively the life and teachings of the prophet.
Donald P. St. John (1987)
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.
Brings a Message of Gaiwiio ("Good Word")
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. □
Handsome Lake, 1735?–1815, Seneca religious prophet; half-brother of Cornplanter. After a long illness he had a vision (c.1800) and began to preach new religious beliefs. His moral teachings showed a similarity to Christian ethics and had a profound effect among the Iroquois. He advocated giving up the nomadic Native American life in favor of agriculture, much to the disgust of Red Jacket. Though Christian missionaries opposed Handsome Lake's religion, it nevertheless persisted alongside Christianity.
See The Code of Handsome Lake (tr. by A. C. Parker, 1913, repr. 1968); A. Wallace, The Death and Rebirth of the Seneca (1969, repr. 1972).