Teaching Handsome Lake’s “How America Was Discovered” as Protest Literature

Copyright Kim Smith

I am currently teaching a 200-level topics course entitled “Rise Up! Protest and Dissent in American Literature.” The class starts with excerpts from Alexander Hamilton’s 1775 pamphlet Farmer Refuted and ends Harriet Jacobs’s 1861 slave narrative, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. In this class, we take our definition of “protest literature” from John Stauffer’s foreword to American Protest Literature: Protest literature “critiques some aspect of society, but also suggests, either implicitly or explicitly, a solution to society’s ills” (xii). In class discussion and assignments, students analyze how protest literature from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries “functions as a catalyst, guide, or mirror of social change” (xii). My syllabus includes literature of the American Revolution, the early anti-slavery and abolitionist movements, the nineteenth-century women’s rights movement as well as working class and American Indian literature from the antebellum era.

In the unit on “American Indian Rights,” the class considers the role of transcribed oral texts in the protest literature tradition of the United States. One of my favorite texts to teach in this unit is Handsome Lake’s “How America Was Discovered.” Handsome Lake (1735-1815) was a Seneca prophet whose teachings were passed down and later recorded by Seneca anthropologist Arthur Parker in the early twentieth century. An excerpt of “How America Was Discovered” is found in the Heath Anthology of American Literature and can be incorporated into survey courses on early American and nineteenth-century American literature. I’ve also taught it in a topics course on “American Origin Stories.” The narrative is about one-page long and re-tells the well-known Columbus story from a Native perspective. Because it is short and seems to tell a familiar story, it is very accessible to students. However, the reading is incredibly rich and needs to be taught in the context of Handsome Lake’s revivalist religious movement.

Handsome Lake: Background and Context


Some instructors may be hesitant to teach “How America Was Discovered” if they are not specialists in American Indian literature—which I am not. Indeed, teaching the cultural and tribal context of the literature is vital, as Abenaki writer Joseph Bruchac reminds: “When talking about an American Indian story you need to be specific about what particular Native nation owns that story. Always acknowledge the nation and the individuals who have shared that story. Remember, too, that stories are embedded in a cultural matrix” (39-40). I always have students read scholar Andrew O. Wiget’s introduction to Handsome Lake in the Health Anthology, and in class lecture, I provide additional information on Handsome Lake and the Longhouse Religion inspired by his visions and prophecies. Sometimes, depending on the goals of the course, I also have students read chapters from Bruchac’s Our Stories Remember to provide my students with a context for reading and approaching Native literature.

Handsome Lake (1735-1815) was a leader in the League of Iroquois, a confederation of several tribes located in what is now upstate and central New York. After the American Revolution, the Iroquois lost most of their land and were forced to live on reservations as retribution for siding with the British. Removal from their homeland, disease, war, and  encroaching settlement by white colonists resulted in loss of cultural cohesion and autonomy. Due to so much change and loss in such a short period of time, some Iroquois turned to the alcohol introduced by whites, further eroding the traditional way of life.

Handsome Lake also succumbed to alcohol and illness, but had a powerful religious vision in 1799. Three messengers of the Creator—possibly representing three Quaker missionaries who were admired by the Iroquois—appeared to him in Iroquoian dress. From this vision, Handsome Lake developed the “Gaii’wiyo,” or the “Good Word” which centered on two teachings: Cede no more land to the whites and revitalize the old traditions. If not, destruction would soon follow. These visions were called the Code of Handsome Lake and developed into the Longhouse Religion, a combination of Quaker teachings and Iroquoian traditions. “How America Was Discovered” is just one prophecy from this code, published in 1923 in Parker’s Seneca Myths and Folk Tales. As Wiget explains in his introduction in the Heath Anthology, the narrative exposes the “Columbian consequences” of European exploration and colonization of the Americas.

“How America Was Discovered”: Summary and Analysis


The story opens with a “great queen” who “had among her servants a young minister.” Students can always ascertain that the “great queen” refers to Isabella of Spain, yet as the narrative progresses, students find that the young minister is not Columbus. He does not enter the story until almost the end, thereby downplaying the centrality of Columbus to the European “discovery” of America. This counters the traditional American discovery story that most of my students learned in elementary school, of Columbus heroically “sailing the ocean blue” with the Niña, Pinta, and Santa María.

The queen asks the young minister, to “dust some books that she had hidden in an old chest” where he finds a “wonderful book,” a reference to the Bible. Like Columbus himself, the importance of the Bible is also diminished in the discovery of America, discarded and apparently forgotten by even the Queen and her ministers. In this “wonderful book,” the young minister reads that it was the “white man” who “killed the son of the creator,” a direct reference to Christ. The Seneca probably would have known the story of Jesus’s crucifixion from their contact with Quaker missionaries. Nonetheless, in Handsome Lake’s version of the crucifixion, it is emphasized that white men kill Christ. The implied question remains: If the whites killed Jesus, then why should Indians be implicated in and beholden to the story of sin and repentance told through Jesus’s crucifixion?

The young minister reads that Jesus didn’t return “after three days and again after forty,” and that his followers despaired.  Instead of having faith, the young minister “was worried because he had discovered that he had been deceived” and asks for advice from the “chief ministers.” They counsel him to “seek the Lord himself and find if he were not on the earth now.”

In his quest to find the Lord, the young minister eventually come to a gold palace with a “handsome man” who tells of “a great county of which you have never heard.” It is “across the ocean” and the young minister will receive fame and wealth if he will bring five things to the “honest and single-minded” people there: cards, money, the fiddle, whiskey, and blood corruption. In other teachings, Handsome Lake warns against alcohol and gambling. The handsome man in this story hopes that the fiddle will speak to the base and lower natures of the innocent people across the ocean. Students may not understand that “blood corruption” is a reference to sexually transmitted disease, which could affect fertility and reproduction. Indeed, the handsome man explains that the blood corruption will “eat their strength and rot their bones,” a possible reference to the degenerative nature of syphilis.

Although the young minister is promised “wealth,” “position,” and “power” if he introduces these corrupting influences to the virtuous people, he is worried and begins to “wonder if he had seen the Lord.” But when the young minister warns Columbus to not seek this land, Columbus still decides to “fi[t] out some boats and sai[l] out into the ocean.” Although the other ministers have seen through the “handsome man’s guise,” Columbus does not. In Handsome Lake’s account of how America was discovered, Columbus is not a hero but rather a misguided, foolish young man who does not listen to those with more wisdom and experience. It turns out that “that land was America.” Soon, more ships with white men flood the new land, bringing “cards, money, fiddles, whiskey, and blood corruption.”

The handsome man who told the young minister about the innocent people of America was the devil, and “when afterward he saw what his words had done he said he had made a great mistake.” In short, the discovery of Americas by Europeans was not part of God’s providential design, but rather the work of devil. And even the devil regrets the evil that he caused by convincing the Europeans to go to the Americas.

With this narrative, Handsome Lake offers a “re-evaluation of Christian elements” and a “negative evaluation of the motive and influence of Europeans,” thereby exposing the contradictions at the heart of the Columbus story, one of the organizing myths of the United States.

Legacy and Present Day Connections

Photo by Indian Country Today Media Network

Although Handsome Lake’s prophecies were never realized in his own time, they were an inspiration for other Native revitalization movements such as the Sun Dance of the Great Basin later in the nineteenth century.  Handsome Lake’s Longhouse Religion is still practiced today.

I try as much as I possibly can to responsibly teach what Bruchac calls the “cultural matrix” of tribal specificity, although I know I sometimes fall short due to my own lack of knowledge and cultural blind spots. I am always learning and trying to do better. However, I think that it is important for my non-Native students in rural north Texas to learn about Native resistance and protest as an on-going historical process, not a short-lived moment in the past or an isolated present day phenomena.

In the protest literature class, my students link Handsome Lake’s narrative to the Dakota Access Pipeline protests, particularly Handsome Lake’s insistence that his people cede no more land to whites and the Dakota people’s protest of the environmental degradation that would be caused to their homelands as a result of the pipeline. In fact, some students note that in terms of pointing out the hypocrisy of a Christian nation and the greed at the heart of America’s origins, Handsome Lake’s protest is needed now more than ever.

Questions for class discussion and assignments:

  1. What is the significance of downplaying the role of Columbus in “How America Was Discovered”?
  2. How does altering the American origin story help Handsome Lake achieve his religious and political purposes?
  3. What makes Handsome Lake’s story a form of “protest literature”?
  4. How can this narrative sharpen our thinking about present day protest movements and protest literature?




Bookending the Survey Course with Native American Literature – Part One: Oral Cultures

Given the present clashes at Standing Rock and the irony of those voices telling Native Americans to “go home,” I’d venture to say the time is ripe for teachers of American literature to revisit the ways in which our classes construct—both explicitly and implicitly—Americanness.

I’m interested in how we begin the survey course, odd beast that it is, and how strategically that beginning can frame the course as a whole. This semester, I’ve bookended my Intro to American Lit class with Native American literature, and in this post I’ll report on teaching traditional oral literature at the beginning of a survey-style, intro-level course.

My priority in introducing students to American literature is to frame America as a place of literary continuity, or as a place always already literary: specifically, I do not want students to see the our literature as something that started with the Pilgrims. …When we do get to the Pilgrims, I want them to appreciate the enormity of interconnected social, cultural, and aesthetic transformations spurred by colonial contact. But in order for students to perceive the literary contours of this particular upheaval, they need a grounding in oral traditions.

Of course, teaching students about ancient oral literary traditions comes with challenges. What do they need to know in order to get their historic and cultural bearings? What are the related discourses, and what are the major questions driving those discourses? What analytic tools will give students traction to participate in said discourses? And how do we use existing textual literature to teach ancient oral literature, anyway? Furthermore… given that academic engagement with this content, like so much that we present for only one or two class periods in a survey course, comprises entire graduate degrees and by extension, entire careers—how do we retain any degree of nuance in our approach?

I lean heavily on the independent scholar, Robert Bringhurst: his writing is clear, Robert Bringhurst image.jpgaccessible, and full of provocative cross-cultural comparisons. A poet, translator, linguist, typographer, and critic, he has devoted a substantial portion of his career to studying Haida poets Skaay and Ghandl and John Swanton’s transcriptions of their works. Ultimately, Bringhurst understands the oral literature of the Haida to be one of the world’s great classical traditions (comparable to that of the Greeks, for example), and his translations and scholarship work toward establishing classical Haida literature as such for a contemporary, westernized audience.

Image result for haida gwaii mapAs political boundaries currently stand, Haida Gwaii (formerly known as the Queen Charlotte Islands, and designated by the yellow/pink circle on the map to the right) is part of Canada, not the native-languages-mapUnited States. But there is also a strong Haida presence in Alaska, meaning some contemporary Haida are Canadian and some are American. Beginning an American literature class with a Canadian translation puts the logic of borders and the colonial scissoring of the Americas on the table for discussion; I encourage students to contrast current political boundaries with basic culture and linguistic maps.

Actual Class Material: First, Topics

In his 2014 interview with Guernica Magazine, Bringhurst lays out a spunky and rich introduction to oral culture, unpacks his claim that “a myth is a theorem about the nature of reality,” and suggests ways of reading—and reasons to read—translations of ancient works. This interview is a great place to start because it combines basic information on oral tradition with issues of live performance, transcription, and translation, and it’s grounded in a specific place (Haida Gwaii) and its culture. Before tackling a textual record of ancient oral literature, students need time to think about the great many wedges falling between what we will be able to access on the page, and what we won’t.

Bringhurst also offers tools by which to gain analytic traction. As students begin to see how much richness of traditional oral literature is ultimately inaccessible to us (because we simply can’t go back in time), students also need recognizable landmarks that are accessible, that can be found and followed on the page, and that do demand critical analysis. In my class, we focus on Bringhurst’s argument about the more-than-human world, for example, and how his idea of “mythtime” (in which rules of reality are malleable) interacts with “realtime” (reflecting things as they are now).

Actual Class Material: Second, Textual Analysis


The next reading I give students is the prologue and first chapter from Bringhurst’s book,
A Story as Sharp as a Knife. This chapter, “Goose Food,” is part essay and part poem, combining a historic discussion and textual analysis with an excerpt in Haida from Ghandl’s telling of the Goose Woman story and Bringhurst’s translation of it. We do two main things with this chapter: (1) we discuss Bringhurst’s arguments, and (2) we close read his translation of the Goose Woman story.

Perhaps most challenging for students was the word “mythology.” Bringhurst demonstrates that all humans in all cultures make myths: these are our oldest stories, “ones endlessly available for retellings.” In “Goose Food,” Bringhurst develops a comparison between Haida mythology and Christian mythology, discussing a painting by Diego Rodríguez de Silva y Velázquez (“The Kitchen Maid,” roughly 1620-1622) in which mythtime is framed by realtime: the painting foregrounds a kitchen maid (realtime); behind her, Jesus, resurrected, is at the table (mythtime).

“The Kitchen Maid” (1620-1622), Rodríguez de Silva y Velázquez

It’s a provocative comparison to bring into the classroom, because some students aren’t ready to apply a literary term (“mythology”) to their own traditions. On the other hand, some embrace it. Bringhurst’s emphasis on truth—for he argues vehemently that mythologies are fundamentally about reality—helps complicate the debate.

The Big Picture

Survey courses are characterized in no small part by the massive omissions we’re forced to make. But they’re also characterized by rather grand connections: large-scale thematic arcs emerge in survey courses, as do long-term formal developments. Big picture through-lines are, from this perspective, the bread and butter of the survey approach.

Beginning a survey of American Literature with ancient oral tradition puts several touchstones in place for the semester as a whole:

  1. Discussion of mythology entails discussion of creation. This makes for a profoundly spiritual literary backdrop to the remainder of the course, one that resonates with subsequent discussions of America’s religious/literary intersections.
  2. The politics of colonialism, westward expansion, othering, assimilating, and resistance all converge in discussion of why and how we have the records we do.
  3. Bioregional specificity of oral tradition both links to—and contrasts with—place-based priorities of, for example, 19th-century American Regionalism (and its future iterations and offshoots).

I’ll be following up in a future post with thoughts on returning to Native American literature at the end of a survey course, reading that literature as a contemporary call for sovereignty, and considering sovereignty—the freedom of people to flourish by governing themselves with their own ambitions at heart—as one of the lenses available for students looking back over a course in American literature as a whole.