The White Dog

Copyright © 2006 Jordan White


            Recently I heard of an Indian tribe which has been petitioning for permission to occasionally kill bald eagles (Haliaeetus leucocephalus), which are an endangered species, protected under law in the United States.  It is also something of an emotional issue, since the bird is the official national symbol of that country.


            The Indian tribe holds that they only want to kill a few birds, although the ones they kill must be fine specimens.


            You see, these Indians believe that the bird must be sacrificed to deliver their prayers to the Great Spirit, or Creator.  It is an old ritual, and one, they contend, must be preserved.  After all, the ritual pre-dates the founding of the United States, and therefore, has the right to be preserved and exempt from present-day law.


            Let me take you back in time, for a moment.  Let’s go back almost 200 years, to 1809.  At this time, a tribe of Indians, the Seneca Nation (part of the celebrated Iroquois Confederacy), also engaged in an age-old ritual.  In the interest of space, I will leave out many details, but the ceremony involved the strangling, hanging, roasting, and eventually, the consumption of a spotless white dog.  The sacrifice of the white dog was considered to be a Thanksgiving offering to the Creator, and was accompanied by dances and songs.


            By 1809, most other tribes had abandoned this ritual.  But the Senecas considered it an important part of their tribal identity and took great pride in it.  But there were rumblings within the tribe to do away with the custom.  They spoke about it to the tribe’s spiritual leader, Handsome Lake.


            This was hard for Handsome Lake to accept.  After all, in the past, he had the ritual held under his direct supervision.  He was a deeply spiritual man and this was, to him, a deeply spiritual experience.  But he listened to those who wanted the practice banned.  He listened to the Quakers, who told him the ritual smacked of “idolatry”.  He listened to his nephew, Henry Abeel, who thought it more “witchcraft” than spirituality.


            Eventually, Handsome Lake decided to ban the practice, for good.  He felt convicted of the need to change Seneca practices.  He condemned the use of liquor; he himself had struggled with its abuse much of his life.  He conducted a survey among the tribe and found that many wished to accept the Quakers’ offer of a school for Seneca children.


            Though not all Senecas agreed with Handsome Lake’s decisions, time has proved them to be right and worthy.  Handsome Lake was a real leader, a man who, although he dearly loved his people and their traditions, chose to move ahead and forge a new life for the Seneca people of Western New York State.


            Today, in 2006, the tribe that wishes to continue the killing of the magnificent bald eagles might learn from this man.  In 1809, it is doubtful that the relatively humane execution of a dog was patently illegal,  but Handsome Lake understood that the practice had nothing to offer the Senecas. 


            Does the killing of a lovely bird really please its Creator?  Or is this tribe merely holding onto an old tradition that needs to be re-thought?


            I’m not going to say what the tribe should do.  I’m not in a position to judge.


            But I’m proud that Handsome Lake was a member of my family.