Religion of the Six Nation Tribes

Last Updated on June 28, 2013 by Dennis

With the exception of the Tuscaroras, each of the Six Nations has one or more council houses, in which the people assemble for business or purely Indian ceremonies, religious or social. There is also a council house or town hall on the Mount Hope road of the Tuscarora reservation, but the pagan party has no footing among this people. The council houses, formerly built of logs, are practically in disuse, and frame buildings, about 40 by 80 feet, with fireplace or simple chimney at each end, which allows separate sittings for the sexes, have taken their place. A new building of this kind on the Tonawanda reservation and 1 at Carrollton, on the Allegany reservation, are indicated on the maps of these reservations. The sides of 3 ancient council houses at Cattaraugus and of 2 at Tonawanda are also indicated. The religious differences of the Indians actually characterize grouped settlements on each reservation. Thus, the majority of the Christian Indians live upon the central road in Onondaga, upon and east of the main road of Tonawanda; between Salamanca and Red House, in Allegany; and upon the main route from Versailles to Irving, in Cattaraugus. As a general role, both internal and external comforts, conveniences, and indications of thrift are alike in contrast. The pagans chiefly occupy the western and southeastern parts of Tonawanda, the Carrollton district, and the country below the Red House, in Allegany, and almost exclusively people the Newtown and Gowanda roads, in Cattaraugus, There are exceptions, but the groupings are everywhere maintained.

Onondaga Reservation

Onondaga Reservation at Onondaga the council house is central upon what is known as ” the public green”, thus retaining for this open space the name common throughout New England even up to a recent date. In this building the pagan rites are annually performed.

The Protestant Episcopal Church, a handsome and well equipped structure, having a rector and 24 communicants, is also near the public green. The responses are devoutly rendered; the singing is rich, full, and expressive. One is preparing for examination to take deacon’s orders. The singing was under the direction of the rector’s wife, who presided at the organ. The people contribute, current expenses.

The Methodist Episcopal Church, also a handsome building, with stained glass windows, is situated opposite the schoolhouse, 180 rods south of the Episcopal Church. There are 23 communicants, and nearly 60 persons were present at the afternoon class meeting. A third christian organization, the Wesleyan Methodist, is worshiping at private houses under the spiritual care of an Indian minister for 13 years among the St. Regis Indians, who has a fair English education.

Here, as in many frontier settlements, the number of churches is disproportionate to the population. The stimulus to competitive, earnest work, which often follows the existence of more than one religious body, does not wholly prevent church jealousies, or impress upon pagan minds the highest idea of christian spirit or that Christianity is the object sought and denominational connections are matters of judgment and choice. Local Christian differences hinder rapid progress.

Tonawanda Reservation

Tonawanda Reservation at Tonawanda there are 3 church buildings, each well adapted to its purpose. The Baptist church, built of brick, and having a good organ and 40 members, cost nearly $3,600. The annual contributions to its support are a little more than $200. A prosperous farmer, with his family (Senecas of the Wolf tribe), struggles hard to restore the church to its former pre-eminence on the reservation. He has lay charge of the meetings, the pulpit being vacant. An interpreter is needed for an English speaker to this congregation.

The Presbyterian Church, costing $2,500, is another good structure that would do credit to any country town. There is preaching by one clergyman on alternate Sabbaths and by another once a month. Three excellent elders, a prosperous farmer, an enterprising young man who commands the full confidence of sensible white people, and a third of sterling quality, have charge of the active work of the church and prove efficient laborers. The number of communicants is 35, and the annual contribution by the church is $30.

The Methodist Church, with a small but neatly furnished place of worship, has nominally 19 members. Their contributions for church work are $30 per annum.

Allegany Reservation

There is but 1 church edifice on the Allegany reservation (Presbyterian), costing $1,500, of which the Indians contributed $750. There are 110 communicants, according to the church records. The pastor, thoroughly enthusiastic in his work, has had strong support by members and elders of his church. There are a number of efficient workers to rescue the Allegany Senecas from the controlling influence of the pagan party.

The Baptists have a nominal membership of 21, and meet at the old school building at Red house, having lost their small church by a storm. Their minister and his wife (clerk of the church) are taking measures to revive their organization and recall “professional backsliders ” to duty.

Cornplanter Reservation

Cornplanter Reservation, closely associated with Allegany, under the same pastoral care, and allied by community of blood and annuity interests, are the few families of Complanter’s descendants across the line in Warren County, Pennsylvania, on the Cornplanter reservation. A well built Presbyterian Church, with 39 communicants, a good organ, and Sabbath school, testify to progressive work. The active representative of the church, a real force in the elevation of his nation, owns property to the value of $10,000, is an industrious, careful farmer, and one of the progressive members of the “national Seneca council”.

Cattaraugus Reservation

Cattaraugus reservation has 3 churches. The Methodist Church is a building costing nearly $2,000, and $300 has recently been appropriated by the missionary society of the Methodist Episcopal Church for improvements. There is preaching every Sabbath afternoon, followed by a class meeting. The membership is 49. The ladies’ sewing circle realized $100 during the census year for church purposes.

The Presbyterian Church cost $2,500, and will accommodate from 400 to 500 people. It has a reliable membership of 86, some having been dropped from the rolls. Ten additions were made upon profession of faith after the enumeration was formally taken, and nearly 30 others had consulted the pastor with a view to admission.

The Sabbath school numbers nearly 100, including the pupils of the Thomas Orphan Asylum, who worship at this church with those who have charge of that institution. Instead of a choir, the asylum pupils, nearly 70 in number, lead the singing with great effect. During the census year the sum of $272 was contributed by the congregation for church purposes. A Seneca of the Wolf, tribe, superintendent of the Sunday school, in its management, exposition of the international lessons, and general church work exhibits rare tact, spirituality, and judgment. He is one of the most respected and efficient members of the national Seneca council.

The Baptist Church, cost about $1,500, is a convenient building, with good horse sheds near by. It has 35 communicants, but is without a minister. The sum of $60 was contributed during the census year for-a temporary supply, and about $70 for other church purposes.

Tuscarora Reservation

At Tuscarora Reservation there are 2 substantial church buildings, the Presbyterian, on the mountain road, visited monthly by a clergyman who has general supervision of the Indian Presbyterian churches of Allegany, Tonawanda, and Tuscarora, as well as at Cornplanter, in Pennsylvania. The number of communicants is 27, with a good Sunday school, good singing, and an intelligent but small attendance, except under favoring conditions of the weather, when the congregation is large, the Indians, equally with the white people, being influenced by clear weather and good roads. The Presbyterian board assists this church to the amount of $175 per annum. The contributions for sexton and other expenses reach $75 per annum.

The Baptist church, under the care of a Seneca of the Turtle tribe, is a large edifice, and has capacious horse sheds, and a nominal membership of 211. The Sabbath school numbers 85. A choir of 20 persons renders excellent music, in which the congregation often joins with spirit. The minister receives $50 from the Baptist convention, but the congregation contributes $220 per annum toward church expenses, and the proceeds from a profitable farm make up his support. A ladies’ Milne missionary or sewing society in behalf of the church inspires additional interest among the people. The comparatively large number of communicants, embracing many very young people, is far above the real number of working members. A new roof upon the church by voluntary labor indicates the enterprise of the congregation.

St. Regis Reservation

Three-fourths of the St. Regis Indians in New York belong to the Roman Catholic Church and worship with their Canadian brethren at the parish church of St. Regis, immediately over the Canada line. The church building, which was once partially destroyed by fire, has been restored, and is well lighted and suitably heated. It accommodates about 600 persons, and at one morning service it was crowded with well dressed, reverent people.

Few churches on American soil are associated with more tradition. One of Mrs. Sigourney’s most exquisite poems, “The Bell of St. Regis”, commemorates the tradition of the transfer of the bell stolen from Deerfield, Massachusetts, February 29, 1774, to the St. Regis tower. The bell went to the church of the Sault St. Louis, at the Caughnawaga village, near Montreal. The three bells at St. Regis came from the Meneely bell shops of Troy within the last 25 years.

The, old church records are well preserved, and since the first marriage was solemnized there, February 2,1762, both marriages and christenings have been recorded with scrupulous care.

The Canadian government withholds from annuities a small sum to maintain the choir and organist by consent of the Canadian Indians, but no organized support flows from the Indians of New York as their proper share.

The Methodist Episcopal Church is located just on the margin of the reservation, north from the village of Hogansburg and within the town limits, in order to secure a good title it is a substantial building, commenced in 1843 and finished in 1845, at a cost of $2,000. The church has 68 communicants, representing one-fourth of the inhabitants of the reservation, and is in a growing, prosperous condition. It is in charge of an earnest preacher, a whole-souled, sympathetic, visiting pastor. The music, the deportment, and the entire conduct of the service, with the loud swelling of nearly 200 voices in the doxology at the close, as well as the occasional spontaneous “amens” and the hand-shaking before dispersion, left no occasion for doubt that a thorough regenerative work had begun right at the true foundation for all other elevation. Weekly prayer meetings at private houses present another fact that emphasizes the value of the work in progress. The assistant, who is both exhorter and interpreter, and as enthusiastic as his principal, is an Oneida and son of a pious Indian woman, one of the founders of the society. The annual contribution for church expenses is $25. The Methodist Episcopal Missionary Society pays the minister’s salary of $500.

Religious Contrasts

The mere statement of the value of church buildings and the number of church members of each organization does not afford an entirely sound basis for testing their real influence and progress. To a greater extent than usual among the white people other motives than those of spiritual religion enter into the mind of the Indian in making the change. Leading Indians who have returned to their pagan associations admit that they did not gain what they expected in the way of influence or position when they “joined the Christians”. Both terms have a political meaning among the Six Nations. Members of the Christian party are not of necessity Christian at heart. Neither are members of the pagan party necessarily of pagan faith.

Examinations show that the social and political relations are so commingled that the real number of converted Indians is but Vaguely determined; at the same time truth requires the statement that the derelict membership is very little greater among the membership of Indian churches than in those of their neighbors. This fact induced a more careful inquiry among the Indians themselves. Without entire dependence upon the church records. The result was to find in every Indian church some members, and in several of them many, whose faith, life, and example would do honor to any Christian professor. In every case the reservations have white neighbors who are destitute of religious principle and who have no other idea of the Indian than that he has land, Which the white man does not have, and an Indian is to be dispossessed as soon and as summarily as possible. Hence came a more minute inquiry into the real religious motive, if such could be found, of those Indians who were not merely pagan in a party sense to conserve old customs, but pagan in actual belief.

The Pagan Faith

The pagan Indians of the Six Nations recognize one Great Spirit, to whom all other spirits are subject. They do not worship nature or the works of nature, but the God of nature, and all physical objects which minister to their comfort and happiness are his gifts to his children.

A Quaker minister and a party from Philadelphia made a visit in the fall of 1890. The contrast of the interpreted words with pagan ideas led to fuller inquiry as to the ceremonies among the pagans which they call “religious” and subsequent attendance at all of them, from the autumn green corn dance and worship to the “feather dance”, Which closes the celebration of the Indian New Year. It was the opinion that many of the old people in the ceremonies of their belief actually render unto God the sincere homage of prayerful and’ thankful hearts, which was confirmed by the simplest form of inquiries, slowly interpreted. At the same time it was equally apparent that the younger portion, almost without exception, treated days of pagan ceremony much as they would a corn husking, full of fun, but without religion.

The New Religion

The “new religion”, as the teachings of Handsome Lake have been called, did not displace the ceremonies of earlier times. He was a Seneca sachem of the Turtle tribe, a half-brother of Cornplanter, was born near Avon about the year 1735, and died in 1815 at Onondaga. About the year 1800, after a dissipated life and a very dangerous illness, he claimed to have had dreams or visions, through which he was commissioned by the Great Spirit to come to the rescue of his people. His first efforts were to eradicate intemperance. He mingled with his teachings the fancies of his dreams or convictions, claiming that he had been permitted to see the branching paths which departed spirits were accustomed to take on leaving the earth. His grandson, Sase-ha-wa, nephew of Red Jacket and his delegated successor, long resident of Tonawanda, amplified his views in many forcible addresses, which are fall of wild, poetic conceptions, yet ever teaching the value of marriage, respect for parents and the aged, and many lessons from the old Hebrew Bible, which, besides the Ten Commandments, had been incorporated into the “new religion” of Handsome Lake. Of the future state, he taught that “one branch road, at death, led straight forward to the house of the Great Spirit, and the other turned aside to the house of torment. At the place where the roads separated were stationed 2 keepers, one representing the good and the other the evil spirit. When a wicked person reached the fork he turned instinctively, by a motion of the evil spirit, upon the road, which led to the abode of the evil-minded, but if virtuous and good the other keeper directed him upon the straight road. The latter was not much traveled, while the other was so often trodden that no grass could grow in the pathway”. “To a drunkard was given a red-hot liquid to drink, as if he loved it, and as a stream of blaze poured from his mouth he was commanded to sing as when on earth after drinking fire water”. “Husbands and wives who had been quarrelsome on earth were required to rage at each other until their eyes and tongues ran out so far that they could neither see nor speak”. “A wife beater was led up to a red-hot statue, which he was to strike as he struck his wife when on earth, and sparks flew out and burned his arm to the bone”. “A lazy woman was compelled to till a cornfield full of weeds, which grew again as fast as she pulled them”. “A woman who sold fire water was nothing but bones, for the flesh had been eaten from her hands and arms”. “To those who sold the lands of their people it was assigned to move a never diminishing mound of sand”. By such terrific and pertinent imagery Handsome Lake and his successor wrought a deep place in the confidence of the old pagan party.

Religious Dances

With all this, the more ancient rites do not yield their place, and the perpetuated songs of remote ancestors still echo to the beat of the kettledrum and the turtle rattle at every recurring celebration of the days observed several hundred years ago. Only now and then is found a man who can carry the whole text of the refrain through the protracted measures of the leading dances, but there are a few such.

The war dance has the striking feature of allowing witty speeches, cutting repartee, personal hits, and every conceivable utterance that will stimulate either laughter or action. The great feather dance, the religions dance consecrated to the worship of the Great Spirit, is given in part as an illustration of the religious sentiment, which pervades, their old music.

At the New Year’s festivities at Newtown council house, in the pagan section of Cattaraugus, January 1891, this dance followed the thanksgiving dance and rounded out the ceremonies of the closing year.

At a great fireplace at one end of the council house large caldrons were fiercely boiling, stirred with long poles by the shawl wrapped women, who were preparing the feast of boiled corn and beans, while 2 other kettles equally large, suspended by chains over a fire behind the building, provided a relay of repast if the first should fall short. Astride a bench placed lengthwise in the middle of the hall sat vis-a-vis the leader and the prompter of dance and song, surrounded by 2 raised benches filled with men, women, and children of all ages. Eight representatives of the Iroquois tribes, in divisions of 4, had been selected to lead off the dance. At the appointed hour there gathered from the cabins that surrounded the large open space where the council house is located nearly 80 men and boys. The headdresses were of varied patterns, from the single eagle feather to the long, double trailing feather ornament which the Sioux wear in battle, and which, streaming out behind as he dashes about in action, more completely represent hint as some uncouth beast than as a real man. The men wore ornamental aprons before and behind, while every muscle stood forth round and compact through the closely fitting knit garment that covered the upper part of the body. Silver bracelets, armlets, necklaces, and brooches, the inheritance of generations; were parts of their adornment. Strings of bells were fastened around the knees, and the costumes varied from a rich variety of equipment down to that of an old man who had pinned 2 faded United States flags to the skirt of his coat. Unlike the parties to the green corn dance at Cold Spring in September, only 1 used paint upon the cheeks. The women wore their good clothes, as if on a social visit.

After all was ready the slight touch of the turtle rattles gradually increased in rapidity as party after party fell into line and caught step and cadence, which constantly developed in volume, until the leader sounded the opening chant for the dance to begin. The whole song, lasting nearly an hour, consisted of a series of measured verses, each of 2 minutes duration. It is difficult to describe the step. The heel is raised but 2 or 3 inches and brought down by muscular strength to keep time with the drum and make a resounding noise by the concussion and at the same time shake the knee rattles. Every figure is erect, while the arms assume every possible graceful position to bring the muscle’s into full play. Although 80 men and 40 women engaged in the dance and slowly promenaded during the necessary rests from the violent exercise of such swift motion, all was orderly and decent. The recitative portions were varied by addresses of gratitude to the Great Spirit, acknowledging every good gift to men. A few passages of the refrain are given as translated many years ago by Ely S. Parker and sung by his grandfather. They have been handed down from generation to generation.

Hail! Hail! Hail! Listen now, with an open ear, to the words of Thy people as they ascend to Thy dwelling! Give to the keepers of Thy faith wisdom to execute properly Thy commands! Give to our warriors and our mothers strength to perform the sacred ceremonies of Thy institution! We thank thee that Thou hast preserved them pure to this day.

Continue to listen. We thank Thee that the lives of so many of Thy children have been spared to participate in the exercises of this occasion.

Then follow thanks for the earth’s increase and a prayer for a prosperous year to come, then for the rivers and streams, for the sue and moon, for the winds that banish disease, for the herbs and plants that benefit the sick, and for all things that minister to good and happiness.
The closing passage is given as the rapidly increased step and tread almost die out in subdued cadence.

Lastly, we return thanks to Thee, our Creator and Ruler! In Thee are embodied all things! We believe Thou canst do no evil; that Thou doest all things for our good and happiness. Should Thy people disobey Thy commands, deal not harshly with them; but be kind to us, as Thou hast been to our fathers in times long gone by. Harken to our words as they have ascended, and may they be pleasing to Thee, our Creator, the preserver of all things visible and invisible, Na ho!

Thus strangely do the elements of revealed and natural religion come into contrasting and yet sympathetic relation. The Six Nations pagans point to their quiet homes, however lowly, rarely protected by locks, to the infrequency of crimes, and even of minor offenses, unless when fired by the white man’s whisky or hard cider, and challenge proof of greater security or contentment. During 7 months of enumeration of this people neither vulgarity nor profanity was noticed, while it was repeatedly forced upon the attention when resuming contact with the white man’s world outside.

Department of the Interior. Report on Indians Taxed and Indians not Taxed in the United States, Except Alaska at the Eleventh Census: 1890. Washington DC: Government Printing Office. 1894.

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