The Code Of Handsome Lake

Doctrines The code of Handsome Lake is Gaiwiio, 'the Good Message', good because it finally reconciles human beings with the Creator; heaven is thus referred to in the Gaiwiio as the "New World" because former generations, not knowing the Creator's will, did not go there. Heaven is the "land of the Creator" (sect.48). There is , however, also an underworld, a dark region beneath the Earth's surface where the creations of the Devil or Tormentor had been imprisoned by the Creator. At the end of the world these evil creatures will be released and "many people will be captured and poisoned by them. Men will see these hardships when they fail to believe in Gaiwiio" (sect.74). Punishment for the wicked is a recurring theme. Those who dishonour Gaiwiio are likely to die mysteriously (sect.47), whilst the Tormentor "will punish the wicked when they depart this world" (sect.49) and numerous examples are given of these punishments.
Informing, then, the teachings of Handsome Lake is a dispute in the "heaven world" between the Creator and the Tormentor over humankind, the Tormentor claiming that he rules the Earth, that human beings obey him not the Creator whose voice they do not hear. Whenever Gaiwiio is taught a "messenger of the evil-minded spirit" attempts to sow doubt in the hearer's mind as to the efficacy of the teaching. The description of the Tormentor is notable for its resemblance to the well known image found in some Christian belief: "At times horns shot out from his forehead, at times a cloven hoof appeared and at times a tail was visible" (sect.101).
Despite the striking similarities between Handsome Lake's portrayal of the dispute between the Creator and the Tormentor and the punishment of the wicked in a kind of 'hell', and corresponding teachings in Christianity, Parker states that Handsome Lake's portrayal is here a "typical example of Iroquois philosophy. The Iroquois were fond of devising stories of this character [the Tormentor]..." (Parker on the Iroquois, 'The Code of Handsome Lake' p.48 n.1)1. At death the souls of the dead follow the "Sky Road" or Milky Way until reaching a fork, at which point the good follow the narrow road to heaven, whilst the evil soul travels the broad, rough, road to the Tormentor's Lodge. There is also a suggestion in Gaiwiio of a 'chosen people': "You have had the constant fear that the White race would exterminate you. The Creator will care for his Ongwe'owe (real people)" (sect.44).
Finally, the Gaiwiio comprehensively scrutinized social relations - much was in need of reform whilst some longstanding practices were to be abandoned. Gaiwiio identified "four evil words": Whisky/rum, witchcraft, witchpoison, and abortion (sterilization) - these were to be abandoned. Sexual promiscuity must cease also, along with abuse of one another; for example, the husband's abuse of his wife, and child abuse. The importance of living in communities is stressed along with sharing, care of the elderly, of orphans, and of the poor. Gaiwiio did not embody the wholesale revival of traditional culture, but it did signify an affirmation and rebuilding of much of it.

History Handsome Lake's people, the Seneca, were members of a six nation confederacy called the 'Iroquois,' which by the eighteenth century had been reduced to poverty with much loss of land, whilst its culture was in ruins. In 1779, during the American-British war (1777-1783), Maj. General John Sullivan, on the orders of General George Washington, led a campaign against the pro-British Iroquois, intended, he said, " destroy everything that contributes to their support". The result: forty towns were destroyed along with an estimated 160,000 bushels of corn, whilst fruit orchards were uprooted or chopped down, one of which contained 1500 trees; "Hardly a food plant remained for the oncoming Winter" (Parker Op.Cit. 'Iroquois uses of Maize' p.20). In addition, the Iroquois involvement in the war divided the Iroquois member tribes against each other; in 1783 Joseph Brant and his Mohawk followers, deserted by the British, migrated to Canada with other pro-British Iroquois. The Iroquois tribes remaining in New York State lost much land to the Whites in dubious treaties and through corrupt land speculators; it seems likely that the Iroquois' resulting poverty informed section 95 of Gaiwiio, which warns of eternal punishment for those who sell their land. By 1797 the Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, and Cayuga Iroquois had little land left in New York State; in the same year the Seneca were tricked out of most of their land also. The respect once commanded by the Iroquois from its dependent tribes and others, including Whites2, had been lost, and was often replaced with contempt (Josephy:1995 pp.271, 281-282).
Like many others, among whom depression and suicide were widespread (Champagne:1994 p.493), Handsome Lake's response was to turn to Whisky to drown his grief, and in turn he became an alcoholic. Also, for four years immediately prior to his great vision (June 1799) he suffered, says Parker, from a "Wasting disease" which rendered him an invalid. This noble born Chief came to view himself as "evil and loathsome" before his Creator and resolved never again to touch "strong drink". As Gaiwiio has it, Handsome Lake suddenly died - or so people thought - only to wake hours later with a wonderful vision on his lips, recovering soon afterwards. In time, Handsome Lake's great vision restored to many of his people a sense of dignity and confidence, and did much to mark out the Iroquois as a distinct social group following the decline of traditional culture through European contacts. Notably, the early attention given to Handsome Lake's vision, probably owes much to the importance attached by the Iroquois to dreams. If the dreamer was of high status, as was Handsome Lake, then the dream was likely to be significant for the whole community; failure to fulfil the dream could have serious consequences for all the people (Snow:1994 p.160).
Two years after Handsome Lake began his mission, President Jefferson urged Secretary of War Dearborn to write a letter to the Iroquois commending the prophet's teachings. The "red people" were urged to follow the advice of Handsome Lake and to be "sober, honest, industrious and good, [then] there can be no doubt but the Great Spirit will take care of you and make you happy". This letter followed Handsome Lake's visit to Washington in 1802 with a delegation of Seneca and Onondaga leaders who hoped to enlist the President's support, and was taken to affirm the prophet's right to preach. (Parker states that at the time he was writing - early 1900's - a copy of this letter was in the possession of every religious leader of the Six Nations of Iroquois). It has been suggested that Handsome Lake aided the adaptation of traditional Iroquois belief to the realities of reservation life, and even that he might be responsible for the Iroquois' survival in the nineteenth century, in part, by rendering agricultural work acceptable to men (Snow:1996 p.162). In his own time, however, Handsome Lake was not without his enemies.
Red Jacket and other leaders denounced Handsome Lake as an imposter, and some tried to expose him as such; he was ridiculed, despised, and subjected to "bodily insults" (Parker Op. Cit. 'The Code of Handsome Lake' p.11), though finally his teachings triumphed. According to Parker, the older religious order had passed away by the time of the Civil War in 1861, leaving Gaiwiio and Christianity to compete with each other for followers; there would appear to have been little love lost between these two groups, and in Gaiwiio even Jesus instructs the Iroquois not to "follow the ways of the White Man" (sect.94).
The teachings of Handsome Lake as recounted by Jemmy Johnson, the former's grandson, were first recorded by Eli Parker, a Seneca Chief, in 1845, and then again in 1848 by the anthropologist Lewis Henry Morgan, Parker's friend. In view, however, of the fact that Gaiwiio existed in different forms among those authorized to preach it, theological arguments developed as to the precise word order and proper number of chapters and paragraphs. Parker states that a Council had agreed on a standardized version of Gaiwiio which was written down by Chief John Jacket in the Seneca language; this copy was, however, lost by Chief Cornplanter once he had memorized it. Cornplanter began to rewrite Gaiwiio in 1903; when it was completed Parker persuaded him to entrust its keeping to the State of New York. Notably, the translator of the English version was a Christian, a Baptist Preacher called William Bluesky enlisted by Parker. Senecas have attested to the accuracy of this translation, which consists in 128 sections, although the sections are numbered up to section 130 and are missing sections 5 and 9.
Gaiwiio continues to be recited in shortened form in late August or early September at the Green Corn Festival, and at the Mid-Winter ceremony in January or February. In the Autumn of every other year, however, Gaiwiio is recited in full at a Solemn gathering of the Six Nations.

Symbols The White Dog: The Midwinter Thanksgiving Ceremony, beginning in late January or early February according to the arrival of the midwinter new moon, is the most important of the Iroquois festivals retained by Handsome Lake, and was the model for all the other calendrical festivals that apparently developed after it. Historically, it was a time when hunters, returning from the Autumn hunt, renewed their energies, brought news to the village, and prepared for the next round of hunting in the deep Winter snows. Handsome Lake added to the festival four sacred rituals: the Thanksgiving or Drum Dance, the Feather Dance, the Personal Chant, and the Bowl Game (also called the Peach Stone Game). Another important event at this festival of renewal, and practiced until 1885, was the Burning of the White Dog, symbolizing the purification of the whole community.
As the Iroquois prized their dogs and the one sacrificed was almost certainly someone's pet, this event was a profoundly emotional experience. The dog was firstly strangled and laid out in the longhouse, decorated with red spots, a string of wampum, feathers and coloured ribbons. Tobacco was burned so carrying a message of thanks to the Sky. Towards the end of the festival the dog was burned whereof the sins of the people were conveyed in the smoke to the Sky (Snow:1996 pp.7, 24, 181); a prayer was also delivered, in the tobacco smoke, to the Creator, imploring him to sustain the order of the world, the fruits of the Earth and all growing things, that the people may live (Parker on the Iroquois: 'The Code of Handsome Lake' pp.85-90). White baskets have sometimes been substituted for the sacrificial dog (Snow:1996 p.7).

Adherents The Handsome Lake religion has about 5000 adherents on reservations in New York State in the U.S.A., and in Ontario and Quebec in Canada; the Canadian reserves are Caughnawaga, Grand River, Oneida, and Akwasasne (St. Regis). (The Canadian Encyclopaedia vol.ii:1985 p.792; Encyclopaedia Britannica vol.5:1994 pp.680-681).

Main Centre
 Tonawanda reservation in New York State, became the center for the Handsome Lake Religion in the late 1820's, although I have been unable to confirm this to be so for the period since 1978. Traditionally, Tonawanda sent out invitations each Autumn to other reserves to meet there on a particular day in September to begin the Six Nations meetings. Also, the Handsome Lake Code, recited in a biennial cycle at the various reserves, was repeated yearly only at Tonawanda; moreover, the Tonawanda leaders decided who was able to preach at the Six Nations meetings. The bienniel cycle included, in one year, the Tonawanda, Caughnawaga, St.Regis, New York Onondaga, Allegany, Canadian Onondaga, and sometimes the Sour Springs (Upper Cayuga) reserves (or Longhouses); and the next year the Tonawanda, Cattaraugus (Newtown), Oneidatown, Canadian Seneca, Lower Cayuga, and sometimes the Sour Springs reserve the following year (Handbook of North American Indians vol.15:1978 pp.453-454).


1. This conflict is illustrated in a traditional origin myth, wherein Sky Woman or her daughter gives birth to the twins 'Good-Minded' and Evil-Minded'. The evil twin does all he can to thwart the good designs of his brother, and, though finally defeated by him, continues to ensure by way of his evil ambassadors that the good is always tainted by evil (Snow:1996 pp.3-4).

2. After calling a treaty meeting with the Iroquois at Fort Stanwix, New York State, in 1784, the American delegates took the advice of James Duane to undermine the now dwindling confidence of the divided Iroquois by treating them as inferiors. In Duane's view, the American delegates should dispense with any procedures that "...would revive or seem to confirm [the Iroquois'] former ideas of independence... they should rather be taught...that the public opinion of their importance has long since ceased" (Josephy:1995 p.278).