Red Jacket, Seneca Sachem

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In 1830 Red Jacket, the most famous Seneca orator, died in New York at the age of 74. Seneca writer, historian, and archaeologist Arthur Caswell Parker described the deathbed scene this way:

“He murmured that his old comrades were around him, some chiding him for his mistakes and urging him to see that there was a task ahead.”


Red Jacket was born to the Wolf Clan (since the Seneca are matrilineal he belonged to his mother’s clan) and was given the name Otetiani (“He is Prepared”) and took the name Sagoyewatha (“He Causes them to be Awake”) when he became a chief. His English name, Red Jacket, came from the scarlet coat given to him by the English for fighting on their side during the Revolutionary War.

At the beginning of the Revolutionary War Red Jacket argued for neutrality, but the Seneca, Mohawk, Onondaga, and Cayuga-all part of the larger Iroquois Confederacy-decided to support England. He served with the British forces. During the war he served primarily as a dispatch courier.

During the Revolutionary War, animosity developed between Red Jacket and the Mohawk leader Joseph Brant. Brant alleged that during the Battle of Newtown in 1779, when the Seneca and the Mohawk were allied with the British, Red Jacket had killed a cow, then used the blood to claim that he had killed an American rebel. In the years that followed, Brant would contemptuously refer to Red Jacket as “cow killer.”

Red Jacket became the principal spokesperson for the Seneca following the Revolutionary War.

After the Revolutionary War, the United States assumed that since it had defeated the British it had earned the right to superimpose a series of treaties on the Indian nations. In 1784, American negotiators met with the Indian nations of the Iroquois Confederacy at Fort Stanwix. The Americans refused to recognize the Iroquois Confederacy (Six Nations) and insisted on dealing with each nation by itself. The American negotiators were aided by force of arms and by hostages to be used in negotiating the treaty terms. One notable leader was absent from the Fort Stanwix council: the Seneca sachem Red Jacket. According to Arthur Caswell Parker:

“Red Jacket remained aloof, not caring to face the humiliation that would be heaped upon his disorganized and distracted people.”

In 1791, the federal government held a council with the Iroquois Six Nations. The American emissary, Timothy Pickering, pressured the Iroquois to provide the United States with warriors for the Indian wars in Ohio. Pickering boasted of American military supremacy and unwittingly insulted the Iroquois. For the Iroquois, public councils were settings which were meant to nurture a friendly, peaceful frame of mind. Councils were to build consensus. This error created an opportunity for Seneca leader Red Jacket to utilize oratory and to create an image for himself as the conservator of hallowed traditions.

In 1792, Red Jacket was among a number of Iroquois leaders who met with President George Washington in Philadelphia. Here he received a large silver medal.

That same year, three Seneca chiefs-Red Jacket, Cornplanter, and Farmer’s Brother-attended a council in Ohio with the Shawnee, Miami, Delaware, and Wyandot in which they presented a peace proposal from the Americans. Shawnee leader Painted Pole reminded the Seneca that while the Iroquois were doing nothing, the Shawnee and their allies had defeated the American army twice. Ridiculing the Seneca, the Shawnee hurled the written copy of the American peace proposal into the fire.

In 1794, Red Jacket along with 50 other Iroquois leaders signed the Treaty of Canadaigua in which they ceded much of their land to the United States.

In 1801, the Seneca Council debated the possible sale of a strip of land along the Niagara River to the Americans. The prophet Handsome Lake opposed the sale on the grounds of revelations given to him by angels. His nephew Red Jacket, the speaker of the Seneca Nation, favored the sale. Handsome Lake accused Red Jacket of witchcraft and Red Jacket accused Handsome Lake of manufacturing his visions.

In 1802, a Seneca known as Stiff-Armed George got into a drunken fracas outside of a tavern. He was beaten and pursued, but then pulled a knife and stabbed two non-Indian men, one fatally. Reluctantly, the Seneca chiefs surrendered him to New York state authorities. According to Seneca leader Red Jacket:

“Did we ever make a treaty with the state of New York, and agree to conform to its laws? No. We are independent of the state of New-York.”

He then presented the state’s governor with a copy of the Treaty of Canandaigua which clearly placed the case in federal jurisdiction. However, the governor wanted to prove state jurisdiction over all of the Indians in New York and the federal government declined to intervene.

In 1805, Seneca chief Red Jacket responded to a Christian missionary’s proposal to convert his people:

“You have got our country, but are not satisfied; you want to force your religion upon us.”

He went on to say:

“We are told your religion was given to your forefathers and has been handed down from father to son. We also have a religion which was given to our forefathers and has been handed down to us, their children. We worship in that way. It teaches us to be thankful for all the favors we receive, to love each other, and to be united. We never quarrel about religion.”

He told the missionary:

“Brother, we do not wish to destroy your religion or take it from you. We only want to enjoy our own.”

War broke out between England and the United States in 1812. In New York, the Americans call together a council of the Iroquois nations. The Americans invite the Iroquois to join them in their war against the British. Seneca leader Red Jacket told the Americans:

“My people care more for peace than for war.”

According to Arthur Caswell Parker:

“Though Red Jacket argues for the neutrality of his people, he clearly declared their loyalty to the United States.”

Red Jacket argued against joining the British and urged his people to ally themselves with the Americans. When the Seneca declared war against the British, Red Jacket became a captain in the United States Army.

In 1816, the Iroquois Six Nations met with the Shawnee, Ottawa, and Wyandot in Ohio to discuss the possibility of the removal of the New York tribes to Ohio. Mohawk leader Joseph Brant felt that it would be a good idea for the Seneca to move to Sandusky where they could join with the Wyandot. Arthur Caswell Parker described the council:

“The chiefs of the Six Nations, long accustomed to the clothing of the white man, were once more dressed in their ancient costumes.”

Seneca leader Red Jacket addressed the council and reminded them that those tribes who recently sided with the British had lost a great deal. Red Jacket told them:

“We have always lost by taking up the hatchet. Even the British, upon whom we pinned our hopes, sold our land to the Americans after every war in which we were allied with them.”

Red Jacket spoke against selling land to the Americans:

“To command respect, you must possess extensive territory! Keep your holdings sufficiently large so that you may not be crowded on any side by the whites.”

In 1819, the Ogden Land Company, with the approval of the federal government, met with the Seneca to discuss buying their land. To watch out for the best interest of the Indians, the government appointed two agents to make sure that the Indians were not cheated or deceived. The Seneca chiefs-Little Billy, Red Jacket, Tall Chief, Young King, Two Skies, Infant, and Destroy Town-listened to the offer which was expressed in glowing terms about its benefit to the Seneca. One of the agents appointed by the government told the Seneca that the President James Monroe felt that it was in their best interest to sell their lands. The Seneca gave in and sold their land for 55 cents an acre and the land company quickly resold it for many times that amount. Arthur Caswell Parker wrote:

“Federal commissioners, delegated to prevent ‘cheating of the Indians,’ entirely forgot that they might have insisted upon a much higher compensation at a public sale, the profits of which could have been used to benefit these Indians for many years.”

In 1821, the Seneca tribal council convicted Kauquatou of sorcery. Acting on behalf of the tribal council Chief Tommy-Jemmy cut Kauquatou’s throat. In response, the state of New York prosecuted Tommy-Jemmy for murder. Red Jacket and Tommy-Jemmy’s court-appointed attorneys argued that the death of Kauquatou was not murder under New York law because it was a legal execution under Seneca law, on Seneca land, by the sovereign Seneca people. The circuit court referred the case to the New York State Supreme Court which noted that no law extended state murder jurisdiction over the Iroquois.

By 1824, Red Jacket was considered the leader of the Seneca Pagan Party which advocated traditional ways and which opposed both the Long House religion of Handsome Lake and European Christianity.

In 1827 Red Jacket traveled to New York City to talk with the Quakers about providing aid for his people. According to Arthur Caswell Parker:

“Red Jacket trusted few persons other than the stalwart Quakers, who could not be intimidated and who were quick to expose a fraud.”

However, the Quakers were involved with helping the Onondaga and did not have any resources with which they could respond to the Seneca request.

While in New York City, Red Jacket agreed to have his portrait painted by R. W. Weir, one of the noted artists of the city. In posing for the painting, Red Jacket dressed in a costume which he felt was appropriate: a caped coat with braid and tassels, a red sash, his Washington medal, and his pipe tomahawk.

In 1827, the Seneca deposed Red Jacket as chief because of his alcoholism and his inflexible political views. Part of the opposition to him stemmed from his involvement with the Pagan Party.

In 1829, Red Jacket once again asked the Quakers for aid. The Quakers provided the Seneca with both farm equipment and sound advice.

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Shown above is the Red Jacket Monument at the Forest Lawn Cemetery in Buffalo, New York. In 1884, Red Jacket’s remains were reburied at this cemetery. Against his wishes, Red Jacket was given a Christian burial.

Indian Justice in New York

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When one person kills another, it is often considered to be murder and certain legal sanctions can be brought against the killer. On the other hand, when an individual is killed on behalf of the government it is considered an execution and there are no legal sanctions against it. Indian nations had governments and laws long before the arrival of Europeans in North America. With the formation of the United States, there were at times conflicts between the traditional Indian law and that of the states. Part of this conflict was about jurisdiction: should murderers be punished under state law or tribal law.  


In 1801, George Peters, a member of the Brothertown tribe (a group of “praying” or Christian Indians who had moved to New York from New England), killed his wife with a club. He was arrested, tried, and convicted in state court. His conviction was appealed on the grounds of tribal sovereignty: the case should have been adjudicated at the tribal level rather than in state court. The State Supreme Court ruled narrowly that the state had murder jurisdiction over the Brothertown Indians because they were an especially small, weak, and vulnerable people unable to defend their autonomy. In other words, the state did not recognize the sovereignty of small groups of Indians.  The following year George Peters was hung, becoming the first Indian executed by the State of New York.

In 1802, a Seneca known as Stiff-Armed George got into a drunken fracas outside of a tavern. He was beaten and pursued, but then pulled a knife and stabbed two non-Indian men, one fatally. Reluctantly, the Seneca chiefs surrendered him to state authorities. According to Seneca leader Red Jacket:

“Did we ever make a treaty with the state of New York, and agree to conform to its laws? No. We are independent of the state of New-York.”

Red Jacket then presented the state’s governor with a copy of the Treaty of Canandaigua which clearly placed the case in federal jurisdiction. However, the governor wanted to prove state jurisdiction over all of the Indians in New York and the federal government declined to intervene.

The following year, Stiff-Armed George was found guilty of murder in a state court. The jurors, fearing that execution might lead the Seneca to seek revenge, recommended that George be pardoned. The governor suspended the sentence and recommended to the state legislature that George be pardoned. The legislature pardoned Stiff-Armed George provided that he leave the state and not return.


One of the crimes under traditional Iroquois law is that of witchcraft: using supernatural forces to cause harm to another person. The traditional punishment for witchcraft was death. In 1821, the Seneca tribal council convicted Kauquatou of sorcery. Acting on behalf of the tribal council Chief Tommy-Jemmy cut her throat. In response, the state of New York prosecuted Tommy-Jemmy for murder. Red Jacket and Tommy-Jemmy’s court-appointed attorneys argued that the death of Kauquatou was not murder under New York law because it was a legal execution under Seneca law, on Seneca land, by the sovereign Seneca people. The circuit court referred the case to the New York State Supreme Court which noted that no law extends state murder jurisdiction over the Iroquois.

In 1822, the state legislature in response to the murder trial of Seneca chief Tommy-Jemmy passed legislation giving the state sole and exclusive jurisdiction over murders committed within its boundaries. Tommy-Jemmy escaped execution because the new law could not be applied retrospectively to his killing Kauquatou.

Federal Law:

While the federal government was not involved in the early nineteenth century New York cases described above, by the end of the century the Supreme Court ruled that state criminal law did not extend over reservations. As a result, Congress passed the Indian Crimes Act which made murder on a reservation a federal offense.


American Indian Biography: Redirecting Museums

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There was a time, particularly during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, when museums were simply “cabinets of curiosities” which displayed artifacts from other cultures and made little attempt to educate or engage the people who looked at them. Items were displayed simply as “curiosities”: exotic items from strange people. During the first part of the twentieth century a new approach to museums was developed by Arthur Caswell Parker.  

Arthur Caswell Parker was born on the Cattaraugus Indian Reservation of the Seneca Nation of Indians on April 5, 1881. His father was Seneca and his mother was non-Indian. His uncle was Ely Parker, the first Indian Commissioner of Indian Affairs and Civil War Union General.

The Seneca (The Great Hill People), whose homeland is in New York, are one of the five Iroquois nations that joined to form the League of Five Nations. One of the most important features of these five nations is their matrilineal clans: individuals inherit both their clan and their tribal status from their mother.

Since Arthur Parker’s mother was non-Indian this meant that he was not born into a Seneca clan and for this reason he was not enrolled as Seneca. However, in 1903 he was formally adopted by the Seneca Bear Clan and given the Seneca name Gáwasowneh (Big Snow Snake).

From a Seneca perspective, Parker was not Seneca, but from the non-Indian view he was considered to be Indian because: (1) his father was Indian (Americans tend to reckon descent through the patrilineal line), (2) he grew up on a reservation, and (3) he looked like an Indian. However, in American society he was not a citizen because he was Indian. Thus Parker occupied an interesting position between the Seneca world (where he was not an enrolled Seneca because his mother was not Seneca) and the American world (where he was not a citizen because his father was Indian).

There were many dimensions to Parker’s life: he was an archaeologist and was active in influencing American archaeology; he was a museum curator who brought about a revolution in the way in which museums organized their displays; he was a Mason and achieved the highest honors of that organization; he was active in pan-Indian organizations and worked towards the assimilation of Indians into American life; he was the author of children’s books which were based on Indian lore and Indian characters; he was the author of books on Iroquois history and folklore; he was a magazine editor.

Parker saw museums as integral to American democracy because they encouraged good citizenship. He advocated the idea that museums should be accessible to everyone and viewed them as the university of the common person. He promoted an interactive relationship between exhibits and the museum visitor and insisted that museums cultivate a set of concerns with which the visitors could relate.

Parker wrote:

“People want to be entertained by exhibits, sights and sounds. They want sensory stimulation. They want to be thrilled by what they experience in a museum, not merely bored by long labels and crowded cases. People want to painlessly absorb stimulating knowledge, a knowledge that makes them talk about it.”

While working at the New York State Museum from 1906 to 1915 Parker created a series of six dioramas depicting Iroquois life. The dioramas, recognized as the finest exhibits of their kind in the country, attracted over 200,000 visitors per year. To make sure that the dioramas were accurate, Parker had artists and sculptors use models with features and facial figures that conformed with typical Seneca types. He also employed many Indians from New York and Canada to carefully reproduce the clothing and artifacts for each of the scenes. Even the backgrounds in the dioramas were based on artists’ impressions of actual archaeological sites.

The dioramas provided illustrations of the various stages of cultural evolution as expressed in the anthropological theories of Lewis Henry Morgan.  According to Morgan, there were various stages of cultural evolution: Savagery (Lower, Middle, Upper), Barbarism (Lower, Middle, Upper), and finally Civilization. In particular, Morgan put forth the idea that Civilization requires the monogamous nuclear family and private property. Under this scheme, Indians were placed in either Upper Savagery or Lower Barbarism, depending on their material and political development.

The exhibits were extremely attractive to the general public, but Parker did not envision them having any specific educational role for Indians. Rather, their function was to educate the wider public on the Indian’s role within the American past.

While museums present Indian life as it was in the past, Parker was also concerned with Indians in the present. In 1920 Parker addressed the New York Indian Welfare Society. He told them:

“To the white man an Indian is only an Indian if dressed in feathers and buckskins.” Pointing out that American society does not allow Indians to change, he asked: “How would the white man like it if the Indians demanded that all white men who came upon their reservations must dress in Colonial uniforms and appear like the picture of Sir Walter Raleigh or of ancient Britain?”

In 1925 he became director of the Rochester Museum.  Under his leadership, this small museum became an institution of national significance.

During the depression, Parker organized the Seneca Arts and Crafts Project. According to its original proposal:

“The Rochester Municipal Museum proposes a project by which the almost extinct arts and crafts of New York Indians may be preserved and put on a production basis in order that such activity and products may contribute to the relief and self-support of the said Indian population.”

The Project was set up in an abandoned school and the artists set about reproducing traditional items. Illustrations and photographs from museum collections and archaeological sites were used as guidelines. As with his museum exhibits, Parker was intent on maintaining consistency with the ethnographic record.

The Project produced over five thousand separate arts and crafts items, all of which were retained as the property of the museum. The Project not only provided employment for Indians, it also raised the museum’s profile during a time of economic cutbacks and uncertain visitor numbers.

Parker was also involved with one of the earliest pan-Indian organizations in the United States. In 1911, a group of well-educated Indians-often described as “Indian intellectuals”-formed the Society of American Indians (SAI). Joining Parker to found the SAI were Dr. Charles A. Eastman (Sioux), Sherman Coolidge (Arapaho), Thomas L. Sloan (Omaha), Charles Daganett (Peoria), Carlos Montezuma (Yavapai-Apache), and Zitkala-sa (Sioux). One of the purposes of the SAI was to push for a reform of Indian policy.

At the first SAI national conference in Columbus, Ohio, one of the founders, Thomas L. Sloan, told the group:

“The evil seems to be that the Indian Bureau administers as if the Indian was selected for their benefit, to exploit them, and not they that were created for the benefit of the Indian.”

Most of the fifty Indians who came together for this first meeting were graduates of industrial or boarding schools. As a result of this first meeting, the SAI lobbied for a national Indian day and fought against the use of terms like “buck” and “squaw”. The group was dedicated to full Indian participation in American society as well as to the preservation of their racial identity. They hoped to forge a new relationship between Indians and non-Indians, incorporating what they saw as the best attributes of both worlds.

The very existence of the SAI as an organized body of Indian doctors, engineers, teachers, and professional people developed considerable respect for Native Americans.

The SAI held its second national conference in 1912 in Columbus, Ohio. One of the important issues which the group discussed was how to speed up the assimilation process on the reservations. At this meeting Parker formed two fraternities: the Loyal Order of Tecumseh and the Descendants of the American Aborigines. The Loyal Order of Tecumseh allowed both active and associate SAI members to socialize and perform ritual.

Parker was also involved in the creation and publishing of the SAI’s magazine, the Quarterly Journal. He felt that the magazine held the potential for reaching a wide audience and focusing the SAI on Indian problems. The first issue appeared in 1912. In 1916, he renamed the magazine American Indian Magazine which proclaimed itself “A JOURNAL OF RACE IDEALS Edited by Arthur C. Parker.” In the first issue he published a range of conflicting viewpoints.

In the American Indian Magazine, Parker also promoted the idea of American Indian Day on May 13. He wrote:

“Heretofore Indians have considered only tribe and reservation. To them the tribe was mankind and the tribal area the world. Today there is a growing consciousness of race existence. The Sioux is no longer a mere Sioux, or the Ojibway a mere Ojibway, the Iroquois a mere Iroquois.”

He goes on to say that the race-conscious Indian will say:

“I am not a red man only, I am an American in the truest sense, and a brother man to all human kind.”

While Indian Day school celebrations were held in three states, it was denounced in the rival Indian magazine Wassaja published by Dr. Carlos Montezuma. Montezuma called Indian Day “a farce and the worse kind of fad.”  

In addition to writing archaeological monographs and editing a magazine, Arthur Caswell Parker is also remembered as the author of a number of children’s books.  In 1926 his book Skunny Wundy and Other Indian Tales was published. This children’s book was a collection of Iroquois stories told in the style of the Euro-American fairy tale. In the beginning of the book, he described how he had first heard the stories at his grandfather’s fireside, from buckskin and leather-clad visitors who had traveled from the wilder parts of the reservation where the longhouse people lived.

In 1928 Rumbling Wings was published. In this book, Parker describes a secret society for older boys based on Indian lore. He followed this book in 1929 with Gustango Gold, a mystery action adventure for older boys.

His last children’s book, Red Jacket: Last of the Senecas, was published in 1952 as a part of the McGraw-Hill biographical series.

Parker also wrote a number of books for adults. One of these was The Indian How Book (1928) which was an attempt to explain to non-Indians how Indians did things. In this book he combined healthy doses of factual information about Indians with some practical advice about surviving outdoors. The book counters some common racial stereotypes and the common notion that all Indians were nomadic hunters. Parker writes about the Iroquois Three Sisters-corn, beans, squash-and points out that the Iroquois had large fields at the time of their first contact with the French.

As modern people, Indians have belonged and participated in many non-Indian organizations. One of the most interesting of these the secret fraternal organization known as the Masons. Many prominent Indian leaders have been Masons: Cherokee leaders John Ross and Elias Boudinot; Choctaw leader Peter Pitchlyn; Creek leader Alexander McGillivray; Seneca leader Ely Parker; and Mohawk leader Joseph Brant. Brant joined the Falcon lodge in England in 1776 and had his apron presented by King George III. Like his uncle Ely Parker, Arthur Casswell Parker was also a Mason and was actively involved with Masonic life. In 1924, he was awarded the highest honor of Masonry: the thirty-third degree, an honor conferred only on a select few senior Masons.

In 1936, the Indian Council Fire of Chicago honored Arthur Caswell Parker as the “most famous person of Indian ancestry in the United States.”

Parker served as the New York State Commissioner on Indian Affairs from 1919 to 1922. In 1923 he was appointed by the Secretary of the Interior to chair the “Committee of One Hundred” to recommend changes in the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

With regard to his involvement with professional associations, Parker was the first president of the Society for American Archaeology; he founded and served as president of the New York State Archaeological Society; he served as president of the New York Historical Association; and was vice president of the American Association of Museums.

In 1954 New York, Arthur Caswell Parker organized the Nundawaga Society for History and Folklore in New York. The first pageant staged by the Society was scripted by Parker and told the story of the birth of the Seneca Nation at Nundawao and their struggle with the Massawomek (Great Snakes). The pageant was a pro-Indian history lesson. One of the obvious themes of the pageant was that the Iroquois had influenced the founders of the government of the United States.

Arthur Caswell Parker died on January 1, 1955 at his home in Seneca country at the age of 73. Men from the St. Regis Reservation conducted the traditional Seneca funeral ritual. In addition, the Masons paid their respects to their departed brother at his funeral.

At one point Parker wrote of his life:

“Nothing ever came easy for me. My obstacles have been heavy and high. I had to overcome them or perish. I chose to overcome them.”

Handsome Lake, Founder of the Longhouse Religion

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In 1799, a new religious movement was born among the Seneca Nation of the Iroquois Confederacy. The new religious movement, considered to be a traditional Iroquois religion today, began with a series of visions received by Handsome Lake. Among this vision was the prophecy that the world would end in 2010.

Handsome Lake was born into the Seneca Wolf clan in 1735. (The Seneca are one of the six nations of the Iroquois Confederacy.) As a young man, Handsome Lake followed the traditional Iroquois role for men and was a warrior. In 1765 he was a part of a group of 100 Seneca warriors, under the leadership of Giengwahtoh (Old Smoke). The war party journeyed to the southeast where they raided the Cherokee and the Choctaw.  

In 1777 he was a part of the Iroquois warriors’ council which met with the British regarding the Iroquois role in the American Revolution. Handsome Lake was one of the warriors who argued that the war was a family affair and was therefore of no concern to the Iroquois. However, in 1778 Handsome Lake was one of the Seneca warriors who joined the British and the Cayuga in an attack against the Americans at Wyoming and Forty Fort in Pennsylvania.

In 1780, Cornplanter – Handsome Lake’s brother – moved to the Allegheny Valley. Handsome Lake, an alcoholic, accompanied his brother. By 1795 Handsome Lake was an invalid living in Cornplanter’s house. His condition is attributed to his drinking and to his having offended the Creator.

In 1798 five Quakers arrived at the Seneca town of Jenuchshadago. The Seneca were hungry because floods and frost had damaged their corn harvest. After consideration of the Quaker request to live among them and teach them, Cornplanter told them: “Brothers, you never wished our lands, you never wished any part of our lands, therefore we are determined to try to learn your ways.” In this way the teachings of the Quakers reached Handsome Lake.  

At the time when the Strawberry festival was about to be held in 1799, Handsome Lake, who had become a notorious drunkard, was very ill. He was a babbling invalid who has wasted away to a mere skeleton. His relatives viewed him as a victim of malaria and, more importantly, of its cure, rum.

His relatives heard him call out “Niio!” (so be it) and they saw him stumble out of his cabin and fall. His daughter Yewenot  and her husband Hatgwiyot carried the limp figure back to his bed. Thinking that he was dead or dying, they sent for his closest relatives, Cornplanter and Blacksnake. When Blacksnake arrived he found that Handsome Lake had no breath or heartbeat, but detected a warm spot on his chest. After a couple of hours, Handsome Lake returned to this world and told of meeting three men sent by the Creator. The message from the Creator contained four words that summarized the evil practices of the people: whiskey, witchcraft, love magic, and abortion/sterility medicine. This was the beginning of a new religion.

Handsome Lake then described his vision in council. His words were translated for the benefit of the Quaker schoolmaster who wrote it down. (Describing visions in council was a traditional activity and thus was not unusual.)

During a second trance which lasted about seven hours, Handsome Lake had a sky journey during which he was told the moral plan of the cosmos. This second vision established the core of the new religion’s theology. During his sky journey Handsome Lake met both George Washington and Jesus. Jesus told him:

“Now tell your people that they will become lost when they follow the ways of the white man.”

In this second vision, a moral code was revealed to Handsome Lake in a series of vignettes. This code outlawed drunkenness, witchcraft, sexual promiscuity, quarreling, and gambling. In addition, reluctance to have children, unfaithfulness to one’s mate, fiddle dancing, and card playing were to be considered to be forms of misconduct.

In this second vision, Handsome was shown two spheres, which he later described as being like color liquid, which were suspended in the eastern sky. One of the spheres was red and one was yellow. The four messengers tell him that if one should fall there would be great calamity throughout the earth. The messengers told him that in 2010 mankind will perish from the earth.

In 1800 Handsome Lake had a third vision in which the Great Spirit communicated concern about the condition of the Iroquois. The angels who guided him deplored the fact that the Indians had lost so much of their land and that the Europeans were so arrogantly sure that the mind of the Creator was written in their book. Handsome Lake was told to have his words written down so that Indians can always remember them.

In this third vision, Handsome Lake was also instructed to advise his people that they must keep their traditional religious ceremonies, particularly the Midwinter Ceremony.

Handsome Lake’s gospel – called Gai’wiio which means “good message” — emphasized the role of the nuclear family — husband, wife, and their children — rather than the Iroquois matrilineal clan or extended family. While women had traditionally owned the land and worked the fields, Handsome Lake’s vision called for the men to become farmers. While the Iroquois long houses were traditionally owned by the matrilineal clan, Handsome Lake’s vision called for the man to build a house for his wife and family rather than living with an extended family.

Handsome Lake’s code prescribed four sacred rituals: (1) the Great Feather Dance to honor children and life, (2) the Drum Dance to honor the spirit beings who watch over the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois), (3) the Men’s Chant to honor the Creator, and (4) the Peach Pit Bowl Game and the Sustenance Dance.

Handsome Lake made four predictions about the future: (1) that the Iroquois chiefs would argue among themselves and abandon the Great Council, (2) that the people would cease their ceremonies and return to witchcraft, (3) that a woman well past childbearing age would give birth, and (4) that a child would bear a baby. When these four predictions are fulfilled the end of the world would be near.

In 1801 Handsome Lake was elected to the Seneca tribal council and he was one of the Seneca leaders who traveled to Washington, D.C. to meet with President Thomas Jefferson.

When the Seneca Council debated the possible sale of a strip of land along the Niagara River to the Americans, Handsome Lake opposed the sale. He explained that he was opposed to the sale on the grounds of revelations given to him by angels. His nephew Red Jacket, the speaker of the Seneca Nation, favored the sale. Handsome Lake accused Red Jacket of witchcraft and Red Jacket accused Handsome Lake of manufacturing his visions.

Later, a non-Christian group led by Red Jacket would state that while Handsome Lake started out to reform the old religion, he had his own inventions. They would claim that he changed the old religion, that he condemned some of the ancient practices that were believed by many to be good, and that he altered the character of the old religion.

By 1803, Handsome Lake’s teachings were bringing about a spiritual renaissance among the Iroquois. He continued to express the “good word” and to stress the need to keep the land instead of selling it. His spiritual movement became a new religion called the Code of Handsome Lake.

In 1804, a group of Seneca families under the leadership of Handsome Lake established a new village just north of Cornplanter’s grant in New York. In setting up the village, Handsome Lake explained that the homes must be close together in order to carry out the midwinter religious ceremonies.

By 1807, news of Handsome Lake’s vision had reached other nations. A delegation of Shawnee approached Handsome Lake and asked him to return with them to tell the people of his vision. He refused. Some historians feel that Handsome Lake’s refusal may have be predicated on his unfamiliarity with the Shawnee language.

In 1815 emissaries from the Onondaga Nation, one of the Six Nations of the Iroquois Confederacy, asked Handsome Lake to bring his message to their people. Shortly after this, Handsome Lake had a vision in which he was advised by three messengers that it was his duty to go to the Onondaga, but that he would meet four messengers who would lead him on the Sky Trail. The Seneca begged him not to go, but he set out for the Onondaga Nation anyway. Near Syracuse, New York, he became very ill and weak. On August 15, 1815, following his vision, he died.

With the help of Handsome Lake’s nephew, Blacksnake, the Code of Handsome Lake was written down and published in 1850. Today, the Code of Handsome Lake is still practiced among the Seneca and is considered to be a traditional Indian religion. The followers meet in a longhouse and place emphasis on good deeds and silent prayer.  

Dam Indians: The Allegheny River

In 1928 the Army Corps of Engineers began to survey the Seneca’s Allegheny Reservation for the building of a large reservoir to reduce flooding on the Allegheny River and to provide recreation for the people of Pennsylvania and New York. This was done without the knowledge or approval of the Seneca.  

In 1953 the Department of the Interior changed its position on the proposed dam: while it had formerly opposed it, it now supported the concept. The newly elected Eisenhower administration supported dam projects, particularly those proposed by the Army Corps of Engineers.

In 1956 Congress authorized the construction of the Kinzua Dam project on the Allegheny River in Pennsylvania. The reservoir from the dam would flood one-third of the Seneca Reservation, leaving untouched only the wooded hillsides and the towns occupied by non-Indians under leases executed by Congress during the nineteenth century. In authorizing the Kinzua Dam, Congress did not consult with the Seneca.

The Seneca sought an injunction against construction of the dam, citing the 1794 Canandaigua Treaty. The courts, however, ruled that under the domestic law of eminent domain, the actions of the United States were legal and that the federal government had the power to make treaties and to break them. The Supreme Court refused to review this decision, thus halting all legal means to stop construction of the dam.

In addition to the treaty, the Seneca also had George Washington’s word that they would always have control of their lands on their reservation in New York and Pennsylvania. In 1790, three Seneca leaders – Cornplanter, Big Tree, and Halftown – had journeyed to Philadelphia to complain to President Washington about non-Indian encroachment on their lands. In a letter written in December of 1790 George Washington guaranteed their boundaries and control of their land. George Washington’s word meant more to the Seneca than it did to the United States government.

The Seneca also hired engineers to report on the feasibility of alternative sites. Arthur E. Morgan, the former head of the Tennessee Valley Authority and a longtime foe of the Army Corps of Engineers, and Barton Jones developed several alternatives to the Kinzua Dam that would have spared Seneca land. The Morgan alternatives would have stored more water and generated more electricity. All of these alternatives were rejected by the Corps of Engineers. The reason for rejecting these alternatives was that they would flood out non-Indians.

Congress passed the appropriation bill for the Kinzua Dam ($4.5 million) in 1960 and a few months later a groundbreaking ceremony was held for the dam. The Army Corps of Engineers completed the dam in 1964. As a result of the project 550 Seneca people had to be relocated. In addition to living people, the dam also required the relocation of more than 3,000 Seneca graves.

The dam displaced roads and railroad tracks, items which received prompt attention from both Congress and government bureaucracies. Congress did not turn its attention to the “human welfare” – that fact that people were also displaced by the dam – until 1963. It is interesting to note that the Pennsylvania Railroad received its final payment of $20 million for relocating its railroad tracks six months before Congress began to concern itself with the cost of the “human” relocation of the Seneca.