Red Jacket & Religion
By Sarah Becker ©2016
“It would be a strange thing if Six Nations of ignorant savages should be capable of forming a scheme for such an union, and be able to execute it in such a manner as that it has subsisted ages and appears indissoluble; and yet that a like union should be impracticable for ten or a dozen English colonies,” Franklin a member of the Pennsylvania Assembly wrote in 1751. The Iroquois League included six nations or tribes: the Cayuga, Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Seneca, and Tuscarora.
Seneca Chief Otetiani was born in 1758. A British ally during the Revolutionary War Otetiani was also known as Red Jacket. In the 1770s the British employed him as a messenger. Red Jacket who could not read, write or speak English became famous not only for his oratory—the Seneca renamed him Sagoyewatha—but also his opposition to Christianity and religious conversion.
The United States Constitution, as ratified in 1788, gave Congress the power “To regulate commerce…with the Indian tribes.” In 1790 President George Washington nominated Colonel, and soon-to-be Postmaster General, Timothy Pickering to serve as Indian Commissioner. Pickering’s goals: “peace and gradual civilization of the Indians.”
George Washington first met Red Jacket, leader of the Six Nations, in Philadelphia in 1792. “One of the General’s greatest wishes was to make peace with the Native American nations bordering the United States,” Mount Vernon historian Mary Thompson said. “As President he frequently welcomed delegations of Indians to the presidential mansion.”
“In managing the affairs of the Indian tribes, generally…in introducing among them some of the primary principles of civilization…it appears proper to teach them to expect annual presents conditioned on the evidence of their attachment to the interests of the United States,” President Washington told the U.S. Senate. Red Jacket’s Six Nations received cash. He was given a large silver peace medal, the first known keepsake of its kind.
The son of Cornplanter, a young chief about 25 years of age, was “among the 50 Sachem and Warriors” who arrived in Philadelphia. “When the Marquis de LaFayette went to France, he took this young chief with him, gave him a fine education, and two years ago he returned an accomplished Frenchman,” Rev. Manasseh Cutler wrote while in Philadelphia. Red Jacket, who met LaFayette for the first time in 1825, criticized the conversion.
“Every national church or religion has established itself by pretending some special mission from God, communicated to certain individuals,” Thomas Paine wrote in the Age of Reason in 1794. “The Jews have their Moses; the Christians their Jesus Christ, their apostles and saints; and the Turks their Mahomet; as if the way to God was not open to every man alike. Each of those churches shows certain books, which they call revelation, or Word of God.”
“It is a contradiction in terms and ideas to call anything a revelation that comes to us at second hand, either verbally or in writing,” Paine explained. “It is revelation to the first person only, and hearsay to every other, and, consequently they are not obliged to believe.”
In 1805 Boston missionary Jacob Cram asked Red Jacket’s permission to proselytize the Iroquois settled in northern New York State. An Evangelical, Rev. Cram disapproved of Red Jacket’s defense of native religion. Indians should be civilized, converted not indulged. Said Rev. Cram to the Six Nations:
“Brothers, I have not come for your lands or your money, but to enlighten your minds, and to instruct you how to worship the Great Spirit agreeably to his mind and will and to preach to you the gospel of his son Jesus Christ. There is but one true religion, and but one way to serve God, and if you do not embrace the right way, you cannot be happy hereafter…To endeavor …open your eyes, so that you might see clearly, is my business with you.” Evangelicalism, a term taken from the Greek word euangelion, means the good news or gospel.
“We have listened with attention to what you have said,” Red Jacket responded. “You requested us to speak our minds freely [and] our minds have agreed…There was a time when our forefathers owned this great island…The Great Spirit had made it for the use of Indians…But an evil day came upon us. Your forefathers crossed the great water, and landed on this island.”
“You say that you are sent to instruct us how to worship the Great Spirit agreeably to his mind, and, if we do not take hold of the religion which you white people teach, we shall be unhappy hereafter,” Red Jacket continued. “You say that you are right and we are lost. How do we know this to be true? We understand that your religion is written in a book. If it was intended for us as well as you…why did [the Great Spirit] not give our forefathers the knowledge of the book…? We only know what you tell us about it.”
“Brother, you say there is but one way to worship and serve the Great Spirit,” Red Jacket concluded. “If there is but one religion, why do you white people differ so much about it?…We do not wish to destroy your religion or take it from you. We only wish to enjoy our own…As we are going to part, we will come and take you by the hand, and hope the Great Spirit will protect you on your journey.…” Rev. Cram declined their hand, declaring “there can be no fellowship between the religion of God and the works of the devil.”
“We will wait a little while, and see what effect your preaching has upon the white people in this place,” Red Jacket told Rev. Cram. “If we find it makes them good, makes them honest, and less disposed to cheat Indians, we will then consider again of what you have said.”
“The key issue was land,” Christopher Densmore wrote. “The Great Spirit had given the land to his Red Children, and George Washington had [allegedly] made it sure.”
“The speech of Red Jacket was delivered in my presence,” Erastus Granger Indian Agent for the Six Nations wrote President Thomas Jefferson. “The speech goes far in confirming the Opinion…that nature has been as bountiful in bestowing rational faculties on the human species of the New World, as she has to those of the Old.”
Jefferson wrote the Virginia Act for Establishing Religious Freedom in 1786. President Jefferson acknowledged “freedom of religion” in his 1801 Inaugural speech and addressed the “wall of separation between Church & State” in his 1802 letter to the Danbury Baptists.
In 1817 Agent Granger described the Seneca as starving. The tribe split in 1819, Chief Red Jacket’s pagans and another’s Christians. Red Jacket died on January 20, 1830, a factional leader who mostly survived Andrew Jackson’s Indian removal policies and America’s Second Great religious Awakening.