In 1735 at the Seneca Indian 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 historical date. 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 a habitual drinker of the white man’s fire water 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 in spite of the warnings of the Confederate Chiefs to these same traders, rum was circulated freely among the Iroquois. The Senecas, who had lost most of their 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 end of the fourth year he walked from his cabin and fell to the earth, seemingly dead. His daughter immediately told his other 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, as his followers say, “Came to life.”
From that day on, Handsome Lake became 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 trance. His first and greatest message was to condemn the white man’s firewater, saying that it was by the Evil Spirit to destroy the Indian People. He established a better system of morals among his people. It is said that because of his teachings many people gave up their dissolute habits, becoming sober and moral men and women, among whom “discord and contention gave place to harmony and order and vagrancy and sloth to ambition and industry. Each Autumn the followers of Kariwiio ‘The Good Word’ assemble to hear the doctrines of Sakorionnieni, the Great Teacher, preached to them by leaders of the faith.
Concerning this noted Iroquois, The Indian League of America says, “A great light came to our people when Handsome Lake taught our people to live pure and noble lives that our race might grow in stature physically and spiritually. He taught us our duty to the Great Spirit, the just giver of life, and to honour Him, not only with our most colorful rites and ceremonies with Thanksgiving, but with our very lives. He taught charity, justice and honesty to all. He taught us to be End to the aged and to our children, and prophesied that from this purity of living a mighty race would grow.
This League honours this teaching, not disparaging the word of God, but holds fast to these ideals as a compliment to the fulfillment thereof. This League therefore honours the ancient religion of our forefathers and demands of all members a tolerant view and urges a pledge to follow this teaching, that our Race might grow in stature physically and spiritually.”
Kaniatario died at Onondaga, Aug. 10, 1815. The monument that the Six Nations have erected over his grave bears the following inscription: “Ga-nyah-di-yoh, author of the present Indian Religion, born at Ca-noh -wa-gas, Genesee County, N. Y. 1735, died Aug. 10, 1815 at Onondaga Reservation.”
Leaving the Onondaga Reservation the warriors turned north for the City of Syracuse. In a park beside one of their main streets near the New York Central Railroad, the warriors saw a small stone memorial. This was erected by the citizens of Syracuse in honour of the Onondaga Indians who saved the early white settlers of that city from death by hunger and sickness. The stone bore the inscription: Monument to Onondaga Indians, Syracuse, New York