UBC Undergraduate Research

Technologies of resistance : Handsome Lake and Seneca responses to land alienation and Quaker missions Williams, Gregory


This thesis explores the connections between land alienation, colonialism and religious renewal in the life and teachings of Seneca religious leader Handsome Lake. In 1799, shortly after the arrival of three Quaker Missionaries at the Allegheny settlement of the Seneca Nation, Handsome Lake began to receive visions from the Great Spirit which reaffirmed traditional Seneca cosmology while integrating certain Christian elements. These visions also outlined a new way in which the Seneca ought to live, embodied in the Gaiwiio or “Good Word,” which is still recited on Seneca Reservations every year. This occurred shortly after the Seneca were pressured to cede the vast majority of their land base in the Treaty of Big Tree after the Six Nations Confederacy (Iroquois) was broken apart by the American War of Independence. Scholars in the tradition of Anthony Wallace have treated the religious movement that Handsome Lake started as an individualist and moralizing one which “saved” the Seneca by allowing them to integrate the core ideas of Euro-American religion and economics within the vocabulary of their traditional images and narratives. This thesis will contradict that view. It will argue that, far from being a Trojan Horse of colonial ideas, Handsome Lake's teachings allowed the Seneca to adapt to and resist colonial rule. In particular, Handsome Lake's visions contested Euro-American practices of land alienation, private property and male agricultural labor as the basis for all economic activity, as well as the authority of the Euro-American Church and State. By disrupting Euro-American discourses of economy and identity which were being imposed on the Seneca, Handsome Lake created space for independent articulations of fluid and vital indigenous ways of life.

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