Handsome Lake

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Painting of Handsome Lake preaching at Tonawanda, by Jesse Cornplanter (last male descendant of Handsome Lake's brother, Chief Cornplanter)

Handsome Lake or Sganyodaiyo (1735-1815) was a Seneca leader and visionary prophet. He was the half-brother of Cornplanter, a Seneca chief who fought on the British side in the American Revolution and also worked, first to accommodate, and then to roll back, adaptation to European culture and life ways. They both encouraged the transition from nomadic hunter-gatherer life to settled farming.

Handsome Lake is most famous for composing and preaching Gaihwiyo, “The Good Word,” also called “The Code of Handsome Lake,” to revive traditional culture and indigenous Longhouse Religion among the Six Nations Iroquois Confederacy, after a long period of demoralization and cultural erosion following European colonization. Much of the Code consists of detailed instructions on reviving and simplifying traditional religious practice and ritual; for instance, the ritual calendar was simplified from 33 dances to four. Handsome Lake also settled the question of how and whether to continue rituals when much of a tribe's knowledge is lost, and one of the central themes of the text is moral instruction suitable to repairing a disrupted culture. As a prophet he described walking in the company of spiritual guides on a visionary tour of heaven and hell and conversing with the spirits of George Washington and Jesus Christ. He also made specific prophecies concerning the end of the world.

“The Code of Handsome Lake” prescribes carefully considered acculturation. "Three things that our younger brethren (the white people) do are right to follow," according to the text: farming, building sturdy houses, and keeping livestock. The advantage to this, he noted, is that if the father of a family dies, his survivors have his property "for help." Two people from each of the Six Nations are to be appointed to study in "English schools." This is not a purist return to The Old Ways, but adaptation to the now dominant white culture -- on the Iroquois' own terms. Nevertheless, preference for white man's law "frightens even the great spirit." And "It is a hard matter for Indians ... to embrace the belief of Bible believers."


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