Indian Time - A Voice from the Eastern Door

Confessional Wampum of Handsome Lake, The Seneca Prophet and Teacher


Roger Jock holds panel upon which Confessional Wampum is mounted.

Reprinted from Wampum Belts of the Iroquois by Tehanetorens

This wampum is ten strings, all white, all pure and sacred, held in the hands of the followers of the Prophet while confessing sins before the Creator, and pledging to try in the future to lead a better and more pure life.

In 1735 at the Seneca town of Conawagus on the Genesee River, there was born an Indian boy who was later to become one of the greatest Indian prophets and teachers of recent times. This Seneca was later given the office of a Chief of the Turtle Clan with the title of Kaniatario, or Handsome Lake.

As a young man, Handsome Lake was everything but a religious teacher. He was an habitual drinker of the white man's firewater and more than once returned from the towns of the invader under the influence of the white man's curse. At this time, in spite of the promises of the United States Government to keep the fur traders from bringing rum into Indian towns and despite the warnings of the Confederate Chiefs to these same traders, liquor was circulated freely among the Iroquois. The Senecas, who had lost most of their beautiful country and who were becoming more and more surrounded by the whites, sought to forget their troubles by drinking rum. Under such conditions Handsome Lake lived.

Finally, after years of drinking, Handsome Lake became very ill-so ill, that for four years he lay an invalid, not able to rise from his bed. At the time of the fourth year, he walked from his cabin and fell to the earth, seemingly dead. His daughter immediately told his clan relatives of his death. His body was dressed in his ceremonial clothes and he was prepared for burial. When his relatives gathered for the Death Ceremony, he surprised everyone by sitting up, or as his followers say, "Came to life."

From that day on, Handsome Lake was a teacher and a prophet. Three Messengers of the Great Spirit had come to him during his death. They told him that the Creator of Mankind had chosen him to tell the Iroquois People how they should live and worship. From time to time for the next fifteen years, the Three Messengers visited and instructed Handsome Lake with the wishes of the Creator. At such times, Handsome Lake would go into a deep trance. There was a fourth Messenger who was to come when the Prophet was to leave the earth at the time of death.

His most important message was to condemn the use of the white man's firewater. He said that it was for the white man's use only and not for the Indian, that it was sent over to America by the Evil Spirit to destroy the Indian.

Handsome Lake checked this curse of the white man and thus saved the Indian from eventual extermination. His influence against the drink habit was very noticeable among the Iroquois. It attracted the attention of neighboring white people. President Thomas Jefferson wrote the Chiefs of the Six Nations a letter, praising the teachings of Handsome Lake and advising the Iroquois to follow his teachings.

The prophet taught that to be poor was no disgrace, that those who are poor on earth will have plenty in the Spirit World. He said that those who imitated the invader and became rich in worldly possessions, thus forgetting to share with the less fortunate, were bought by the Evil Spirit. He said it was impossible for a rich man to enter the Spirit World.

Handsome Lake urged the Iroquois to follow Indian customs and ways, that the ancient ceremonies of Iroquois thanking the Creator for his many gifts pleased the Creator.

Handsome Lake taught that the really great man, one who was successful in this world, was not the man who gained for himself wealth and power, but was the man who did the most for his people. He told the Council of Chiefs that in order to protect their country and people from the white man, it was necessary to send some of their most promising young people away to the white man's schools to learn the white man's own business methods and then return to the Indian Country to help their own nation. He said that unless they did this, they were doomed. These are only a few of the many lessons given by Sonkwaiatison to the Three Messengers, who in turn, passed them on to Handsome Lake to deliver to his people.

For sixteen years, Handsome Lake preached the religion, Kariwiio. During that time, he preached at Cornplanter Reservation, Cold Spring Reservation, and Tonawanda Reservation. While at Tonawanda, he was visited by the Messengers of the Creator who told him that he was to go to Onondaga, and while there, the Fourth Messenger would come and lead Handsome Lake to the Land of Happy Spirits. His prediction of his own death was true; while at Onondaga, he died-August 10, 1815.


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