American Indian Heritage Month: Commemoration vs. Exploitation
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Longhouse Religion

The Iroquois Confederacy (or Haudenosaunee, meaning "people building a longhouse") represents the coming together of five Iroquois nations—the Mohawks, Oneidas, Onondagas, Senecas, and Cayugas—for the purposes of political and military cohesion and strength. By 1722, a sixth nation—the Tuscaroras—joined the confederacy. While there are some differences between nations in regard to language and traditions, overall the nations of the confederacy followed the same practices and traditions and could understand the language of one another without much difficulty.

Initially, the longhouse was a building in which Iroquois families lived. In modern times, the long-house building has become a place for people who continue to follow the traditional Iroquois ways to gather for social, political, and ceremonial events. Many of these more traditional Haudenosaunee people refer to themselves in everyday language as being "Longhouse," that is, belonging to one of the six Iroquois nations that constitute the confederacy and following the traditional customs and traditions of the people of the longhouse. This does not necessarily exclude people who are "Longhouse" from embracing other religious traditions. While some purists may argue that these people are somehow less authentic in their beliefs, it is a reflection of the reality of different cultures interacting and sometimes clashing for several hundred years.

The phrase "longhouse religion" is a term most often used in the United States to describe the Iroquois people who follow the Handsome Lake Code. As with many indigenous peoples, the nations that were known as the Iroquois Confederacy were affected in all aspects of their lives by the arrival of Europeans on their lands. After contact with Europeans, a Seneca man by the name of Handsome Lake spoke about a system of rules and guiding principles that he believed were given to him by the Creator to pass on to others for their benefit, to lead a better life. These principles became known as the Handsome Lake Code (Gai'wiio, good words). It has been argued by some traditionalists that this code was merely a melding of traditional Haudenosaunee ways with Judeo-Christian principles (such as those found in the Ten Commandments) and therefore does not reflect the "authentic" beliefs and traditions of the Iroquois. The debate continues to this day and in many communities there are two branches reflecting traditional Haudenosaunee beliefs: the more purist or traditionalist longhouse and the Handsome Lake longhouse.

Handsome Lake, of the Seneca nation, was born in 1735 and was the half-brother of the renowned Chief Cornplanter. Throughout his life, Handsome Lake had problems with alcohol and was very ill for several years from excessive drinking. It was during this time of illness that he began to seriously contemplate life, and he experienced visions or revelations that would change his life (Parker, 1913, 9). Handsome Lake's teachings came at a time when the Seneca and other Iroquois nations were experiencing severe hardships, poverty, and loss of their traditional lands, and Handsome Lake gave people hope and faith for a better future. He was even commended for his teachings and efforts by President Thomas Jefferson (Parker, 1913, 10).

Initially despised and belittled for his teachings, even by Cornplanter himself, Handsome Lake was at times quite discouraged. Some individuals continued to remind him of his alcoholism and former ways and could not believe that such an imperfect person could be a true prophet. In time, however, a significant group of followers developed.

Through his code, Handsome Lake encouraged his followers to reject alcohol, witchcraft, charms, abortion, and gossip against other people. He also encouraged couples to remain together, to not divorce or separate, to not have children outside of marriage, and to not physically abuse one another. While he rejected many of the traditional practices of the Iroquois nations, he maintained that certain specific traditional dances and activities should continue: the Great Feather Dance, the Harvest Dance, the Sacred Song, the Peach Stone game, and the Midwinter Festival (Parker, 1913, 27–81).

Handsome Lake continued to teach these principles for sixteen years, until his death on August 10, 1815, in Onondaga, New York (Parker, 1913, 6, 81). After his death, Chief Cornplanter, who had come to accept the Handsome Lake Code, said of his half-brother: 

He made mistakes, many mistakes, so it is reported, but he was only a man and men are liable to commit errors. Whatever he did and said of himself is of no consequence. What he did and said by the direction of the four messengers is everything—it is our religion. [Handsome Lake] was weak in many points and sometimes afraid to do as the messengers told him, He was almost an unwilling servant. He made no divine claims, he did not pose as infallible nor even truly virtuous. He merely proclaimed the Gai'wiio' and that is what we follow, not him. We do not worship him, we worship one great Creator. We honor and revere our prophet and leader, we revere the four messengers who watch over us—but the Creator alone do we worship (Parker, 1913, 14).

Lysane Cree

Further Reading
Carnegie Museum. 1998. "The Iroquois of the Northeast." Available at: exhibits/north-south-east-west/iroquois/. Accessed January 11, 2007.; Garraty, John.,ed. "Peacemaker Hero: Handsome Lake." Available at: Accessed January 11, 2007.; Kanatiiosh. 2001. "The Longhouse." Available at: pages/longhouse.htm. Accessed January 11, 2007.; Lord, Rebecca, and David Ratcliffe. 2002. "The Six Nations: Oldest Living Participatory Democracy on Earth." Available at: 6Nations/. Accessed January 11, 2007.; Parker, Arthur C. 1913. "The Code of Handsome Lake, the Seneca Prophet." Available at: Accessed January 11, 2007.; Six Nations. "Culture: What Are the Values, Beliefs and Traditions That the Haudenosaunee Seek to Maintain?" Available at: Accessed January 11, 2007.; Thomas, Jacob E. 1994. Teachings from the Longhouse. Toronto, ON: Stoddart Publishing Company.

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