Handsome Lake, founder of a First Nations alcohol recovery program, was born two hundred years before Alcoholics Anonymous came into existence!
I first came across his name while I was researching for Emma Field, Book III. “Handsome Lake!” I thought. “I’ve got to find a way to weave this man into the story!” But alas, the Seneca leader and prophet was born approximately 100 years before Emma and it seemed more truthful to speak of his influence through Orenda Pierce, a strong clan mother from Six Nations. (And yes, I had picked her name long before Joseph Boyden’s book was published. The name means magic power.)
Handsome Lake, who became a warrior, was born in 1735, to a culture in disarray.
White immigrants had flooded into native territory. Their presence put pressure on game as well as trade, travel and land. European farming practices, conducted by men, out-produced the methods employed by Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) women. Then the Revolutionary War, and the subsequent Sullivan’s campaign destroyed half of the native population and left many others as refugees; near starvation and sick from disease.
There is a line of thinking that says when a culture is strong, it is able to provide an anchor for the struggling individual. In Handsome Lake’s time the culture itself was crumbling and individual after individual turned to alcohol and witchcraft for solace.
From Native American Roots.net:
“In 1798 five Quakers arrived at the Seneca town of Jenuchshadago. The Seneca were hungry because floods and frost had damaged their corn harvest. After consideration of the Quaker request to live among them and teach them, Cornplanter (Handsome Lake’s brother) told them: “Brothers, you never wished our lands, you never wished any part of our lands, therefore we are determined to try to learn your ways.” In this way the teachings of the Quakers reached Handsome Lake.
At the time when the Strawberry festival was about to be held in 1799, Handsome Lake, who had become a notorious drunkard, was very ill. He was a babbling invalid who has wasted away to a mere skeleton. His relatives viewed him as a victim of malaria and, more importantly, of its cure, rum.
His relatives heard him call out “Niio!” (so be it) and they saw him stumble out of his cabin and fall. His daughter Yewenot and her husband Hatgwiyot carried the limp figure back to his bed. Thinking that he was dead or dying, they sent for his closest relatives, Cornplanter and Blacksnake. When Blacksnake arrived he found that Handsome Lake had no breath or heartbeat, but detected a warm spot on his chest. After a couple of hours, Handsome Lake returned to this world and told of meeting three men sent by the Creator.”
The first message from the Creator contained four words that summarized the evil practices of the people: whiskey, witchcraft, love magic, and abortion/sterility medicine. In subsequent visions, which were transcribed by a Quaker school teacher, Handsome Lake relayed a moral code which outlawed drunkenness, witchcraft, sexual promiscuity, quarreling, and gambling. It emphasized the importance of seasonal festivals and the nuclear family.
“By 1803, Handsome Lake’s teachings were bringing about a spiritual renaissance among the Iroquois. He continued to express the “good word” and to stress the need to keep the land instead of selling it. His spiritual movement became a new religion called the Code of Handsome Lake.” The religion has continued to sustain aboriginals on both sides of the Canadian/American border into the current day.
Back to the idea of Epigenetics…Rupert Sheldrake coined the phrase “M-field” (Morphogenetic Field) for the times when humans break through a barrier, and the capacity for others to do the same is opened up. When Roger Bannister broke the 4 min. mile he created a new M-field and many runners suddenly began to run the sub-4 min. mile. The same happened with the human capacity to fly when the Wright brothers opened up a new M-field. And the capacity to recover from alcoholism opened up with the M-field created by Bill W. of Alcoholics Anonymous and Handsome Lake 1 ½ centuries before. Is that epigenetics? Only science will, in time, be able to tell, but for now I find it enormously hopeful to think that it might be!