Saturday, December 10, 2011

The Code of Handsome Lake


On an odyssey of sorts that took me through Lima, Geneva, Waterloo, Interlaken, and finally to Ithaca, along with a bunch of places with names from Iroquoian languages around three Finger Lakes, I purchased, along with The Jefferson Bible (more on that later), a book entitled The Death and Rebirth of the Seneca. The book tells the story of the "Old Way" of Handsome Lake, pictured above, who was born not at all far from where this blogger lives, and whose "religion was more successful than most religions during that time, apparently because his code combined traditional Iroquois religion with white Christian values."

Wikipedia tells us that he "preached a message that combined traditional Haudenosaunee religious beliefs with a revised code meant to bring consciousness to the Haudenosaunee after a long period of cultural disintegration following colonization... and [which] is still practiced today." This prophet brought "a message of Gaiwiio (the 'Good Word') to his people," which "outlawed drunkenness, witchcraft, sexual promiscuity, wife beating, quarreling, abortion, gay marriage, single parents and gambling, ... along with a threat that fire would destroy the world if this Code was not obeyed."

None of this was I taught in the fifth grade when New York State mandates that local Indian history be instructed, for obvious reasons. For further edification, consult these links — The Code of Handsome Lake, the Seneca Prophet, A New Religion for the Seneca, Iroqouis Traditions. And here's a remarkable contemporary document addressed to the subject of this post — Jefferson's Indian Addresses. The president asks the prophet to
    [p]ersuade our red brethren then to be sober, and to cultivate their lands; and their women to spin and weave for their families. You will soon see your women and children well fed and clothed, your men living happily in peace and plenty, and your numbers increasing from year to year. It will be a great glory to you to have been the instrument of so happy a change, and your children's children, from generation to generation, will repeat your name with love and gratitude forever. In all your enterprises for the good of your people, you may count with confidence on the aid and protection of the United States, and on the sincerity and zeal with which I am myself animated in the furthering of this humane work. You are our brethren of the same land; we wish your prosperity as brethren should do. Farewell.

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