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By John Hanchette

OLEAN -- Is it possible the future of the planned $80 million Seneca Nation casino in the Niagara Falls Convention Center could hinge on the teachings of a fascinating tribal prophet now dead some 187 years?

The answer is maybe. The prophet's name is Handsome Lake, unheard of by most Americans -- except Native Americans.

Handsome Lake was a Seneca -- prominent half-brother to the famous chief Cornplanter -- and two centuries ago he traversed the Niagara region frequently in both peace and war. Yet it's a better bet than roulette that not one Niagaran in a hundred could recognize the name.

My interest in this stems from a poignant and almost unbearable irony.

Here we are in that economic shambles called the Niagara Frontier, waiting for the Seneca to save a down-and-out city by pulling our financial chestnuts from the fire -- all the while politely muting the historical record that shows we are leaning on a people we either blithely ignored for centuries, rarely mentioned or treated as inferior in social discourse, or gleefully screwed into the ground by cheating them out of vast tracts of land after killing off a goodly portion of their ancestors.

It they're going to be our fiscal saviors, we should get to know them a little better, don't you think?

Two weeks ago, I attended a formal dinner at St. Bonaventure University here, thrown in welcome of Laurence Hauptman, a visiting professor from SUNY at New Paltz who's a prolific author and nationally recognized expert on the Iroquois confederacy. He is held in very high regard by the Seneca.

On the tables I noticed the refresher drink before meal -- instead of the usual orange juice or V-8 cocktail -- was strawberry juice. That was something new. I sat at a table with several important Seneca women invited to honor the visiting academic, many of them from the Tonawanda Band of Seneca Indians, a federally recognized tribe whose 1,200 members are mostly centered on a 7,500-acre reservation near Akron at the eastern end of Niagara County.

The Tonawanda Band is matriarchal -- its tribal enrollment based on traditional Iroquois matrilineal kinship: The mother's line of ancestry. Unlike the casino-developing Seneca Nation -- the Seneca Indians of the Cattaraugus and Allegany Reservations who rely on standard democratic elections -- the separate and sovereign Tonawanda Band retains the traditional governing structure of the old Iroquois Confederacy, the tribal "Council of Chiefs."

The Tonawanda Band has eight clans (Snipe, Hawk, Turtle, Deer, Wolf, Heron, Beaver, Bear) each one appointing a clan mother, who in turn appoints a tribal member to serve as chief. The chief must heed the recommendations of the clan mother. The clan mother even retains the power to remove a chief. One of the honored guests was Ramona Charles, a wise, delightful and attractive 83-year-old lady who has held several offices as a member of the Tonawanda Band, and whose spry behavior and infectious wit belied her age. I knew she was enchanting me when the university president introduced her with an observation about her not looking a day over 63, and she said to tablemates, "He's a real ball-breaker, isn't he?"

She explained the strawberry juice. The strawberry is a very special plant, with almost sacred qualities, for the Seneca. Some believe the road to heaven has strawberries sprouting on either side. They are frequently referred to in tribal metaphor.

"My great-grandmother lived to 112 years," said my dinner companion. "One day she told her family, 'I think I'll go pick strawberries tomorrow.' She died the next day."

The Seneca have a saying similar to middle America's "I almost bought the farm," the near-death phrase that originated in the Great Depression when someone escaping a close call would remember they had at least thoughtfully insured the old homestead against their absence.

"A person who has come through a severe sickness will say: I almost ate strawberries," writes Anthony F.C. Wallace, author of the hallmark text "The Death and Rebirth of the Seneca." Wallace even mentions "a spring in heaven from which strawberry juice constantly bubbles forth."

Enter Handsome Lake. In the histories, he is universally described as routinely drunk and depressed in the wake of Seneca cultural collapse following the American Revolution. But in the summer of 1799, he had several religious revelations in an epiphanic dream -- each of them connected metaphorically to the growing, ripening, and eating of strawberries.

In his youth, Handsome Lake was a warrior. At age 28, writes Wallace, he "definitely was one of the Seneca ambushers at Devil's Hole," a famous 1763 fight along the Niagara Gorge in which the Indians surprised and killed 29 members of a wagon supply train, and 72 of the British troops who tried to rescue them.

"The ambush at Devil's Hole was a bloody piece of work," writes Wallace.

But after his dream 36 years later, according to that historian, Handsome Lake became a famous orator and preacher, for 16 years articulating the dilemmas in which the Seneca were trapped and prescribing "both religious and secular solutions" -- including refraining from drinking whiskey, practicing magic, and engaging in sexual promiscuity. Handsome Lake urged his people to confess their sins, abandon evil, and strive for salvation. His vision of punishment in the afterlife for sins on earth is similar to Catholic versions of damnation described to me by Sister Claudia in catechism class.

President Thomas Jefferson was impressed with these sermons, and commended the prophet's teachings with syrupy letters in which Jefferson urged "our red brethren" to be sober and cultivate their lands, and the women "to spin and weave for their families." Do this, wrote the president to Handsome Lake in 1802, and "you will soon see your women and children well fed and clothed, your men living happily in peace and plenty, and your numbers increasing from year to year. It will be a great glory to you to have been the instrument of so happy a change."

Cornplanter supported his half-brother, but the famous Seneca chief and renowned orator Red Jacket, always lacking trust in the white man, tore into Handsome Lake all over Western New York, warning that the prophet -- as evidenced by the presidential stroking above -- was making it tragically easy, with his can't-we-all-just-get-along message, for the white man to steal Indian land and kill off the Iroquois tribes.

Despite this opposition, Handsome Lake's message and template of behavior survives to this day, followed by maybe 4,000 Indians and centered on the Tonawanda Band reservation, where many espouse the "Old Way" and refer to themselves as "People of the Longhouse."

So why is Handsome Lake and his path or righteous behavior important to the future of a casino in downtown Niagara Falls?

Because one of his strict provisions is the avoidance of gambling, and the Tonawanda Band, joined by the nearby Tuscarora Indians, have already petitioned Interior Secretary Gale Norton to halt the contract allowing casinos in Niagara Falls and Buffalo, partially because they would "undermine the cultural and religious values" of both nations.

Norton, with official silence that allowed the gambling compact to automatically take effect, apparently ignored this plea. She also did not respond to a similar claim by the Tonawanda Band that unification with the Seneca Nation until the two split in 1848 means the Tonawanda Band has concurrent rights to aboriginal land on which the casinos would be built.

This tone of complaint and language is likely to appear in future lawsuits, however, actions that could delay the planned New Year's Eve opening of the casino in the convention center. An existing lawsuit by some state legislators and a coalition of anti-gambling groups -- claiming the casinos are in violation of the state constitution -- is still rattling right along after a judge in Albany ruled at the end of October against a motion from Gov. George Pataki for immediate dismissal. The argument must be resolved in court, said the judge.

The issue still splits the Seneca, despite last week's decisive election of a pro-casino slate of Seneca Nation officers. The Tonawanda Band, noted Ramona Charles, is somewhat put out because the governor and other state officials "don't even realize the Tonawanda Band is a separate and sovereign nation -- they never consulted with us on casinos."

Where this is all headed contains more drama and suspense than any casino table game. The odds -- despite Handsome Lake's haunting admonitions -- seem to favor the establishment of a casino in the convention center by the time daffodils bloom. New Year's Eve is more of a longshot.

John Hanchette, a professor of journalism at St. Bonaventure University, is a former editor of the Niagara Gazette and a Pulitzer Prize-winning national correspondent. He was a founding editor of USA Today and was recently named by Gannett as one of the Top 10 reporters of the past 25 years. He can be contacted via e-mail at Hanchette6@aol.com.

Niagara Falls Reporter www.niagarafallsreporter.com November 12 2002