Saints, Sinners and Reformers
The Burned-Over District Re-Visited
A New Religion for the Seneca
The plight of the Seneca Indians was more than a discouraging one as
the 1800s began. Confined to inadequate reservations, surrounded by alien
and unfriendly whites, their traditional hunting grounds gone, split between
conservatives and liberals within their midst, there was but little prospect
for a shattered people. There were, however, two glimmers of hope for
the future. One lay with the help from a non-proselytizing group, the
Quakers of the Philadelphia Yearly Meeting, who were determined to assist
a people in need of succor. The other, in time, was to lie with a new,
native form of religion which has become known under the name of the "Religion
of Handsome Lake" or "The Old Way of Handsome Lake." Handsome Lake was
a Seneca warrior who sought a new approach for the traditional religion
of his people.
It was the small meeting of the Religious Society of Friends in Philadelphia,
Pennsylvania, who helped the Indians acclimate themselves to a European
style of living and farming. Not only in New York, but in the South and
in the new West the Quakers were at work among other Indian tribes, the
Creeks, the Cherokees, the Chickasaws, the Shawnee, the Wyandot, the Delaware,
the Pottawattamie, the Ottawa, and the Chippewa. The Iroquois tribes were
yet another displaced and despairing people of their day, the victims
of white desire for land. It was only to the Quakers that they could turn
for solace and for help, and the Quakers had no ulterior motive beyond
the happiness and well being of their fellow men. Their plan was simply
to introduce the most necessary of civil practices to the Indians, useful
practices in husbandry and the plain mechanical arts and manufactures
which would sustain life. The Quakers refused to take advantage of the
Indians' trust either by proselytizing against traditional Indian religious
beliefs or trying to convert them to Christianity. Nor did they wish any
economic gain from their charitable activities. They expected, in fact,
to operate at a financial loss.
In March of 1798 the Quakers sent three young Quaker men into the Seneca
Reservation to live on the Reservation and to teach the Indians how to
build proper farmhouses and barns and how to farm in European ways. They
had worked with the Oneida successfully, and they now turned their attention
to the Seneca. At first they supplied the Indians with those tools needed
for modern farming, gifts of Quaker societies in Philadelphia. In time,
to teach the need for self-sufficiency, they sold such equipment to the
Indians, but always at cost. No profit was to be made from these Quaker
endeavors. The houses the Quakers built for their teachers of modern living
and of literacy in English were given to the Indians when the Quakers
had completed their tasks. There was to be no taking of Indian lands or
advantage of the Indians.
It was not smooth going, even with Quaker help. Some Indians refused
to modernize. Some sold their lands, and thus the non-contiguous and almost
useless Reservations along the Genesee River and elsewhere were sold off.
Some Indians were bilked of their lands by white men. Christian missionaries
appeared to convert the Indians, and their attempts to undermine traditional
Indian religion further demoralized an already demoralized people. The
deprivation of their livelihood and a continuing effort by governmental
and Christian organizations to undermine their culture continued through
the nineteenth century. Indian children were removed from the Reservations
and sent to schools, such as the one in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, where
they were not permitted to use their own languages and where they were
brought up under white, Christian standards and beliefs. Their native
beliefs were derided and forcibly suppressed.
Indian treaties were continuously violated by the U.S. government. The
1838 Treaty of Buffalo Creek fraudently deprived the Indians of their
four remaining Reservations: Buffalo Creek, Alleghany, Cattaraugus, and
Tonawanda. It not only deprived the Seneca of all remaining Seneca lands,
but it led to an attempt to remove the Seneca from New York to Kansas,
and many who were so exiled died en route. Happily The Hicksite Friends,
a separate Quaker group, helped to revoke the Treaty of 1838, with the
ostensible charitable purpose of integrating the Indians into white society
for the Indians' supposed benefit. The Whig Party in New York agreed to
this since they wished to tax the Indians as New York citizens, and not
in any way to benefit the Indians. In the supplemental Treaty of Buffalo
Creek of 1842, three of the four Reservations would in time be restored
to the Seneca, but the Buffalo Creek Reservation was lost forever. It
was not until 1858 that the Tonawanda Seneca were able to buy back a portion
of their original but stolen Reservation. The 1838 Treaty had been worked
out by government officials before the meeting with the Indians, and it
was never agreed to by the Indians unanimously, as required by Indian
usage. Here the whites forced the treaty through by claiming that majority
rule had been at work, contrary to Indian custom.
Then in 1848 the Seneca Revolution overthrew the rule by the Chiefs in
Indian matters as traditional mores were further undermined. The cohesiveness
of Seneca life was further fragmented when its governance was next split
by the establishment of two Seneca governments, the Seneca Nation of Indians
and the Tonawanda Band of Indians. Finally, in 1880 in an attempt to reach
beyond the various fragmentations facing Indian life, the Philadelphia
Yearly Meeting of Friends initiated the "Indian Rights Association" in
order to do what was possible to protect the Indians as individuals and
as tribes, and to safeguard their customary ways. Yet as late as 1965
the U.S. Congress again violated its treaties with the Seneca and the
treaties which had set up the Reservations. That year the Seneca were
deprived of their homes and land on Indian Reservation territory so that
the Kinzua Dam could be built in northern Pennsylvania. One article (Article
IX) of the 1842 Treaty has of recent years created new tensions between
New York State and the Seneca. That article grants U.S. protection against
the State levying of taxes and road assessments on Indian Reservations.
Thus New York State's attempt to tax cigarettes and gasoline bought on
Reservation land has become a continuing taxation issue one hundred and
fifty years after the Treaty was signed.
On January 8, 1998, the Canadian government officially apologized to
the "First People" of Canada for its one hundred and fifty years of mis-rule.
Since 1849 young Indians had been removed from their families and sent
to schools where they could not use their native language nor practice
their native ways. They were often physically and sexually abused. Canadian
religious orders have also apologized for such mis-treatment—with
the exception of the Roman Catholic Church in Quebec. In the United States,
no such apology has ever been made, and problems still exist. Senator
Robert Kennedy in 1969 initiated a review of abuses against the Indians
by the American government, but with his death the investigations ended.
Despite the misguided and disastrous efforts of the government and some
proselytizing Christian groups, in time a revival of Indian religion would
come about through the visions and teachings of Handsome Lake, a brother
of the Seneca Indian leader Cornplanter. It would be an attempt to preserve
the best of the past while making religious accommodation to the present.
Handsome Lake had been involved in the Indian wars against the whites,
but he had become a victim of the alcohol sold to the Indians by white
men. (Such sale of alcohol to Indians had been banned by the English under
the 1763 Proclamation but to little avail by unscrupulous whites.) Then
in 1807 Handsome Lake had a vision which included a sense of the imminence
of world destruction, a not unusual vision, given the Indians' status
and condition at that time,
Handsome Lake's vision defined the sins which the Indians had to forgo,
including belief in witchcraft, in love magic, in abortion, and in drunkenness.
His concern about sin and salvation were not taken from concepts based
on Christian theology of original sin or being saved through faith in
Jesus, but they addressed the personal weaknesses which had to be overcome
to solve Indian shortcomings and to make for more wholesome individuals.
Salvation in the new "Religion of Handsome Lake" would come from avoiding
the sins he had enunciated, but it also involved the necessity for observing
traditional Indian ceremonies.
A second vision followed for Handsome Lake, and this one, which involved
social concerns, included:
1. Temperance: The avoidance of family quarrels and the mistreatment
of children Here the family rather than the clan was stressed, and this
was a break from the old matrilineal rule of the oldest clan female over
the extended members of a clan. Clan was thus being downgraded in favor
of the family consisting of the husband, wife, and children.
2. Peace and Social Unity: Whereas the teachings of Jesus spoke to the
white man, the teachings of Handsome Lake applied to Indians. To be rejected
were the centralization of police powers, the private profit motive, social
ills such as gambling, drunkenness, dancing, promiscuity.
3. The Preservation of Tribal Lands: It was permissible to sell Reservation
lands just so long as the larger Reservation could be increased in size.
4. There Should Be Schooling in English: English should be learned at
the Quaker schools to help protect the tribes in the future against white
lawyers and government officials. White ways should be learned so as to
improve Indian life. Indian society must be transformed from a male hunting
and woman farming society into one of male farming and female housekeeping.
Nevertheless Indian society must keep to its own ways without acculturation
to white standards. There must be an autonomous Reservation community
using white technology but retaining Indian identity.
5. There was to be a renewal of traditional domestic morality. Sons were
to obey their father, mothers were not to interfere with their daughters'
marriages. There was to be a sanctity of the husband-wife relationship—with
no divorce. Again, this was a break with the old clan organization of
Between 1818 and 1845 a church based on the teachings of Handsome Lake
evolved. It was in the old Longhouse meeting style but with a more formal
wooden benches and with a woodstove. At the Tonawanda Reservation, Jimmy
Johnson (Son-she-o-wa), the grandson of Handsome Lake, was the preacher
of the new religion in the 1840s, based on his grandfather's visions.
He taught that the Great Spirit had spoken to His people through His prophet
Handsome Lake and that the Great Spirit supported and loved those who
remained Indian and who kept to the traditional Indian teachings and Indian
Thus, a new approach to Indian life came into being, and it has remained
a potent force for many Indians since 1850. Among the 20,000 or so Iroquois
living on the several Reservations in New York, Quebec, and Ontario today,
there are perhaps 5,000 followers of the Old Way of Handsome Lake. Iroquois
who are Christians also attend the ceremonies of the followers of Handsome
Lake, for they see nothing amiss in attending services of more than one
The headquarters of the faith of Handsome Lake is at the Tonawanda Reservation
near Buffalo, and here are kept the wampum belts of Handsome Lake. These
are so sacred that no white man has ever seen them, and Indian preachers
may only view them once every two years on a sunny day when there isn't
a speck of a cloud in the sky. All but the Tuscarawas Reservation have
a longhouse where the Handsome Lake functions take place and where the
"Gaiwiio," the "Good Word" is preached. There are longhouses today at
The Alleghany Reservation near Salamanca, New York
The Cattaraugus Reservation near Gowanda, New York
Tonawanda near Buffalo
The Onondaga Reservation near Syracuse
Oneida on the Thames River in Ontario
St. Regis along the St. Lawrence River, New York
Grand River near Brantford, Ontario
Caughnawaga near Montreal
The Autumn Ceremony of the Religion of Handsome Lake lasts four days.
The mornings are given to the preaching of the "Gaiwiio" by a preacher
who holds a copy of the sacred wampum of Handsome Lake in his hands. The
Great Feather Dance follows the conclusion of the preaching, the tempo
being hammered out on the preacher's bench by two men using turtle rattles.
Two other men lead the dance which honors the Great Spirit. They wear
Plains' Indian headdress, beaded shirts, trousers, and moccasins They
stamp and twirl, prance and rear and spin. Their followers join them,
usually the important members of the group, and their dance is more a
shuffle than a dance. Afterwards there is a mid-day meal in the cookhouse.
In the afternoon there are interpretations of the morning text by various
visitors, and this is followed by confessions. In the evening there are
social dances, primarily of the shuffling type.
On the second, third, and fourth day, during the "Gawiio" a bucket of
strawberry juice is passed around from which all those present partake.
Strawberries have been associated with the first preaching of the "Gawiio"
by Handsome Lake, and it has its association with the traditional spring
Strawberry Festival when thanks are given to the Great Spirit who allows
all growing things to come to fruition.
Time has passed. The Iroquois in New York and Ontario have become a part
of modern American and Canadian life today. The men work in various occupations
off the Reservation and their wives often work as well as teachers, office
workers, and in other modern occupations. More and more the Iroquois are
trying to be both modern individuals while at the same time retaining
their Indian heritage. The concern for Indian traditions is growing. Some
Indians have even put their Reservation to new uses by offering gambling
casinos to non-Indians, thereby bring a great amount of money to the Reservation
which, under the treaties since the American Revolution do not come under
local and national laws or restrictions since the Reservation is a sovereign
nation. Happily such Reservations are putting the income to furthering
the education of their children and to increasing the health facilities
for their members. Some even make a financial contribution to the adjacent
communities in lieu of taxes which they might have to pay if they were
not an independent enclave.
Thus Joseph Brant and Handsome Lake have had an ongoing influence over
Iroquois life, the one fighting for the integrity of tribal life, the
other re-invigorating a tradition which was in danger of being lost.
Note: The Wallace book (last entry below) offers
the best account of the plight of the Iroquois tribes in the period just
before and after the American Revolution.
Bjorklund, Karna L. The Indians of Northeastern America.
Dodd, Mead, & Co. New York. 1969.
Graymont, Barbara. The Iroquois in the American Revolution.
Syracuse University Press. Syracuse, New York. 1972.
Kelsey. I.T. Joseph Brant 1743-1807. Syracuse
University Press. Syracuse, New York. 1986.
Herzberg, Hazel W. The Great Tree and the Longhouse:
The Culture of the Iroquois. Macmillan. New York. 1966.
Hunt, George T. The Wars of the Iroquois. University
of Wisconsin Press. Madison, Wisconsin. 1940.
Martin, John H. and Phyllis G. The Lands of the Painted
Post. Bookmarks. Corning, New York. 1993.
Morgan, Lewis. League of the Iroquois. Citadel
Press, Carol Publishing. New York. 1993.
Ritchie, William. Indian History of New York State
in Part Two, Iroquois Tribes. Albany, New York. A New York State
Museum leaflet. n.d.
Wallace, Anthony. The Death and Rebirth of the Seneca.
Vintage Press. New York.1969.