Origin Stories & Creation Myths
of the American Indians

Handsome Lake

Seneca tribe of the Iroquois Confederacy; Handsome Lake was half-brother to Cornplanter, Seneca War Chief

How the White Race

Came to America . . .

(c. 1800)

From Arthur Parker, The Code of Handsome Lake, the Seneca Prophet (1913); copied from Sacred-Texts.com: http://www.sacred-texts.com/nam/iro/parker/cohl005.htm

Instructor's note: This text's blending of European and Native American religious symbols and themes may make it an example of syncretism (or satire?).

The title's reference to The Gaiwiio (Good Word) may refer to the Iroquois Great Law of Peace.

Possible discussion question(s):

How much does this American Indian text show the influence of European or Christian texts or stories, especially Genesis but also Columbus? Is the result an example of syncretism or satire?




[1] Now this happened a long time ago and across the great salt sea . . . that stretches east. There is, so it seems, a world there and soil like ours. There in the great queen's country where swarmed many peopleso many that they crowded upon one another and had no place for hunting—there lived a great queen. Among her servants was a young preacher of the queen's religion, so it is said.

[2] Now this happened. The great queen requested the preacher to clean some old volumes [books] which she had concealed in a hidden chest. So he obeyed and when he had cleaned the last book, which was at the bottom of the chest, he opened it and looked about and listened, for truly he had no right to read the book and wanted no one to detect him. He read. It was a great book and told him many things which he never knew before. Therefore he was greatly worried. He read of a great man who had been a prophet and the son of the Great Ruler. He had been born on the earth and the white men to whom he preached killed him. Now moreover the prophet had promised to return and become the King. In three days he was to come and then in forty to start his kingdom. This did not happen as his followers had expected and so they despaired. Then said one chief follower, "Surely he will come again sometime, we must watch for him."

[3] Then the young preacher became worried for he had discovered that his god was not on earth to see. He was angry moreover because his teachers had deceived him. So then he went to the chief of preachers and asked him how it was that he had deceived him. Then the chief preacher said, "Seek him out and you will find him for indeed we think he does live on earth." Even so, his heart was angry but he resolved to seek.

[4] On the morning of the next day he looked out from the opening of his room and saw out in the river a beautiful island and he marveled that he had never seen it before. He continued to gaze and as he did he saw among the trees a castle of gold . . . that he had not [seen] . . . before. Then he said, "So beautiful a castle on so beautiful an isle must indeed be the abode of him whom I seek." Immediately he put on his clothes and went to the men who had taught him and they wondered and said, "Indeed it must be as you say." So then together they went to the river and when they came to the shore they saw that it was spanned by a bridge of shining gold. . . .  [the other two men flee]

[5] [The young man] knocked at the door and a handsome smiling man welcomed him in and said, "Do not be afraid of me." Then the smiling man in the castle of gold said, "I have wanted a young man such as you for some time. You are wise and afraid of nobody. . . . Listen to me and most truly you shall be rich. Across the ocean that lies toward the sunset is another world and a great country and a people whom you have never seen. Those people are virtuous, they have no unnatural evil habits and they are honest. A great reward is yours if you will help me. Here are five things that men and women enjoy; take them to these people and make them as white men are. Then shall you be rich and powerful and you may become the chief of all great preachers here."

[6] So then the young man took the bundle containing the five things and made the bargain. He left the island and looking back saw that the bridge had disappeared and before he had turned his head the castle had gone and then as he looked the island itself vanished.

[7] Now then the young man wondered if indeed he had seen his lord for his mind had been so full of business that he had forgotten to ask. So he opened his bundle of five things and found a flask of rum, a pack of playing cards, a handful of coins, a violin and a decayed leg bone. Then be thought the things very strange and he wondered if indeed his lord would send such gifts to the people across the water of the salt lake; but he remembered his promise.

[8] The young man looked about for a suitable man in whom to confide his secret and after some searching he found a man named Columbus and to him he confided the story. Then did Columbus secure some big canoes and raise up wings [sails] and he sailed away. He sailed many days and his warriors became angry and cried that the chief who led them was a deceiver. They planned to behead him but he heard of the plan and promised that on the next day he would discover the new country. The next morning came and then did Columbus discover America. Then the boats turned back and reported their find to the whole world. Then did great ships come, a good many. Then did they bring many bundles of the five things and spread the gifts to all the men of the great earth island.

[9] Then did the invisible man of the river island laugh and then did he say, "These cards will make them gamble away their wealth and idle their time; this money wilt make them dishonest and covetous and they will forget their old laws; this fiddle will make them dance with their arms about their wives and bring about a time of tattling and idle gossip; this rum will turn their minds to foolishness and they will barter their country for baubles; then will this secret poison [virulent disease? cf. John Smith, History of Virginia, paragraphs 23 & 24] eat the life from their blood and crumble their bones." So said the invisible man and he was Hanîsse'ono, the evil one.

[10] Now all this was done and when afterward he saw the havoc and the misery his work had done he said, "I think I have made an enormous mistake for I did not dream that these people would suffer so." Then did even the devil himself lament that his evil had been so great.


Online Texts for Craig White's Literature Courses

  • Not a critical or scholarly text but a reading text for a seminar

  • Changes may include paragraph divisions, highlights,
    spelling updates, bracketed annotations, &
    elisions (marked by ellipses . . . )