Published on February 26, 2013 by Amy
Handsome Lake (Cayuga language: Sganyadái:yoˀ, Seneca language: Sganyodaiyoˀ) (Θkanyatararí•yau• in Tuscarora) (1735 – 10 August 1815) was a Seneca religious leader of the Iroquois people. He was a half-brother to Cornplanter, a Seneca war chief.
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Handsome Lake, a great leader and prophet, played a major role in reviving traditional religion among the Haudenosaunee (People of the Longhouse), or Six Nations Iroquois Confederacy. He preached a message that combined traditional Haudenosaunee religious beliefs with a revised code meant to revive traditional consciousness to the Haudenosaunee after a long period of cultural disintegration following colonization. This message was eventually published as the “Code of Handsome Lake” and is still practiced today.
Handsome Lake was born around 1735 in the Seneca village of Conewaugus, located on the Genesee River near present-day Avon, New York. Very little is known of his parents. He was born into the Wolf clan of his mother, as the Iroquois have a matrilineal kinship system, and was named Hadawa’ko. He was eventually adopted and 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 through fur trading, Handsome Lake witnessed the gradual deterioration of his society.
In 1794 he signed the U.S. treaty with the Six Nations (known as the Pickering Treaty). He visited Washington, D.C. with Cornplanter in 1802.
Several factors contributed to the erosion of morale and spiritual welfare of the Haudenosaunee. In the period after the American Revolution, the Haudenosaunee lost most of their land in New York and Pennsylvania, and were forced to live on reservations, including in Canada. The reservations provided poor living conditions and little or no opportunity for formal education or cultural autonomy. This dislocation followed years of social disruption due to epidemics of infectious disease and major wars, in addition to encroaching settlement by colonists. As a result of so much change over a relatively short period of time, many Haudenosaunee began to turn toward alcohol, which exacerbated the erosion of the traditional family unit. This situation was a result of the cultural clash between the fledgling United States and the once equally powerful Six Nations people. The traditional religious rituals were no longer applicable to the environment in which the Haudenosaunee people found themselves.
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, Owen or Governor Blacksnake (a/k/a Skandyo’swadi), 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, abortion, gay marriage, single parents and gambling. Handsome Lake presented his message along with a threat that fire would destroy the world if this Code were 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 accusations and briefly assumed a less prominent leadership role. Handsome Lake became popular again during the War of 1812, when he 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 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; it 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, New York. His religious beliefs were carried on by Governor Blacksnake and other disciples. His teachings have continued to be a compelling force among the Iroquois.