Published on January 21, 2011 by Carol
The leader and prophet Handsome Lake was known by many names throughout his life. Ganio’dai-io, Kaniatario, or Ganeodiyo, all meaning Beautiful Lake, was born with the name Hadawa’ko, meaning Shaking Snow and was later endowed with the title Skaniadariyo when he was appointed Chief of the Seneca nation.
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Born into the wolf clan of the Seneca nation around 1735 Handsome Lake (176kb/2sec) was raised by the Turtle clan people. During a time when the Seneca nation’s holdings near Avalon New York were strong he was raised to participate on the side of the British in the French and Indian Wars and the American Revolution. Later in his life after the Haudenosaunee nations had lost most of their land and continually faced confinement by invading settlers he, like many, found it difficult to adjust.
In 1799, during a time when Handsome Lake was sick with alcoholism, he claimed to experience a series of visions by four messengers. With the return of his health Handsome Lake began preaching the “good word” to his people often preaching against drunkenness. His claim was that if the natives were to survive as a people they would have to adopt higher moral standings. Among his teachings he expressed the Great Spirit’s grief over the loss of native lands to the white man.
With a renewal of traditional customs of sharing and truth as the backbones of his preaching he began to regard himself as a messenger of the Great Spirit. He was a proponent of self purification through traditional beliefs and desired to spread the values of family and community throughout his people. He also suggested that his people implement modern farming rather than continue to hunt dwindling food sources.
Handsome Lake gained political power in 1801 when he was elected a Seneca (198kb/2sec) leader and in the following year headed an excursion to Washington to speak with President Thomas Jefferson who commended him on his teachings. During his visit he urged the then president to guarantee Haudenosaunee land boundaries and to cut off the liquor traffic therefore drying up the reserve.
As a persecutor of those promoting or participating in witchcraft he participated in the murder of “witches”. This move led him to lose support among his people because of his extreme methods. His nephew Red Jacket was one of his greatest political rivals whom Handsome Lake later accused of witchcraft.
In 1809 with the decline of his power due to his excessive methods Handsome Lake went into a brief exile returning in 1812 to restrain his men from joining the war.
Throughout his life time his preachings gained popularity and he was successful in reducing the alcoholism levels among his people and returning them to their traditional values. Handsome Lake died August 10, 1815 at Onondaga and was buried beneath the Council House.
His teachings were carried on by his disciples and were later published in 1850 as The Code of Handsome Lake based on the interpretations of his followers.