Turtle Island (Native American folklore)

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Satellite image of North America

Turtle Island is a name for Earth[1] or North America, used by some Indigenous peoples, as well as by some Indigenous rights activists. The name is based on a common North American Indigenous creation story and is in some cultures synonymous with "North America."[2]

There are a number of contemporary works which continue to use and/or tell the story of the Turtle Island creation story.[2][3]


The Lenape story of the "Great Turtle" was first recorded by Europeans between 1678 and 1680 by Jasper Danckaerts. The story is shared by other Northeastern Woodlands tribes, notably those of the Iroquois Confederacy.[2][4]


Sky Woman (1936), by Seneca artist Ernest Smith, depicts the story of Turtle Island.

According to Iroquois oral tradition, "the earth was the thought of [a ruler] of a great island which floats in space [and] is a place of eternal peace."[5][2] Sky Woman fell down to the earth when it was covered with water, or more specifically, when there was a "great cloud sea".[1] Various animals tried to swim to the bottom of the ocean to bring back dirt to create land. Muskrat succeeded in gathering dirt,[1] which was placed on the back of a turtle. This dirt began to multiply and also caused the turtle to grow bigger. The turtle continued to grow bigger and bigger and the dirt continued to multiply until it became a huge expanse of land.[1][6][7] Thus, when Iroquois cultures refer to the earth, they often call it Turtle Island.[7]

According to Converse and Parker, the Iroquois faith shared with other religions the "belief that the earth is supported by a gigantic turtle."[1] In the Seneca language, the mythical turtle is called Hah-nu-nah,[1] while the name for an everyday turtle is ha-no-wa.[8]

In other versions of the story, such as Susan M. Hills's, the muskrat or other animals die in their search for land for the Sky Woman (named Mature Flower in Hills's telling). This is a representation of the Haudenosaunee beliefs of death and chaos as forces of creation, as we all give our bodies to the land to become soil, which in turn continues to support life. We can see this concept playing out again when the Mature Flower's daughter dies during childbirth, becoming the first person to be buried on the turtle's back and whose burial post helped grow various plants such as corn and strawberries.[9] This, according to Hill, also shows how soil, and the land itself, has the ability to act and shape creation. Some tellings do not include this expanded edition as part of the Creation Story, however, these differences are important to note when considering Haudenosaunee traditions and relationships.

Indigenous rights activism and environmentalism[edit]

The name Turtle Island is used by many Indigenous cultures in North America, and both native and non-native activists, especially since the 1970s when the term came into wider usage.[6] American author and ecologist Gary Snyder uses the term to refer to North America, writing that it synthesizes both indigenous and colonizer cultures, by translating the indigenous name into the colonizer's languages (the Spanish "Isla Tortuga" being proposed as a name as well). Snyder argues that understanding North America under the name of Turtle Island will help shift conceptions of the continent.[10] Turtle Island has been used by writers and musicians, including Snyder for his Pulitzer Prize-winning book of poetry, Turtle Island; the Turtle Island Quartet jazz string quartet; Tofurky manufacturer Turtle Island Foods; and the Turtle Island Research Cooperative in Boise, Idaho.[11][12]

The Canadian Association of University Teachers has put into practice the acknowledgment of indigenous territory and claims, particularly at institutions located within unceded land or covered by perpetual decrees such as the Haldimand Tract. At Canadian universities, many courses, student and academic meetings, as well as convocation and other celebrations begin with a spoken acknowledgement of the traditional Indigenous territories, sometimes including reference to Turtle Island, in which they are taking place.[3] [13]

Names in Indigenous American languages[edit]

Contemporary works[edit]

There are a number of contemporary works which continue to use and/or tell the story of the Turtle Island creation story.

The Truth About Stories by Thomas King[edit]

Thomas King's book tells us that "the truth about stories is they're all we are."[15] King's book explores the power of story both in native lives and in the lives of every person on this planet. Every chapter opens with a telling of the story of the world on the back of a turtle in space, and in each chapter, it is slightly altered to show how stories change through tellers and audiences. Their fluidity is itself a characteristic of the story as they transverse through time.[15]

King provides us with his own telling of the story using a woman named Charm as his Sky Woman. Charm is from a different planet and is described as being curious to a fault, often asking the animals of her planet questions they deem to be too nosy. When she becomes pregnant she develops a craving for Red Fern Root, which can only be found underneath the oldest tree. While digging for the Red Fern Root she digs so deep she makes a hole in the planet, and in her curiosity falls through all the way to earth. King tells us that this is a young Earth from before land was created, and in order to save Charm from falling hard and fast into the water and upsetting the stillness of the water, all the water birds fly up to catch her. With no land to set her on they offer her the back of the turtle. When Charm is almost ready to give birth the animals fear that the turtle will be too crowded, so she asks the animals to dive down to find mud so that she can use its magic to build dry land. Many animals try but most fail, until the otter dives down for days before finally surfacing, passed out from exhaustion, clutching mud in their paws. Charm creates land from the mud, magic, and the turtle's back and gives birth to twins which keep the earth in balance. One twin flattened out the land, created light, and created woman, while the other made valleys and mountains, shadows, and man.

King emphasizes that the Turtle Island creation story creates "a world in which creation is a shared activity...a world that begins in chaos and moves toward harmony."[15] He explains that understanding and continuing to tell this story creates a world that values these ideas and relationships with nature. Without that understanding, we fail to uphold the relationships forged by Charm, the twins, and the animals that created the earth.

Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer[edit]

Robin Wall Kimmerer's book addresses the need for us to understand our reciprocal relationships with nature in order for us to understand and use ecology as a means to save the earth. The version of the story from Kimmerer starts off with the Sky Woman falling from a hole in the sky, cradling something tightly in her hands. Geese rise up to soften her landing and place her on the back of a turtle so that she does not drown. All the animals congregate to help find dirt for the sky woman so that she can build her habitat, some giving their lives in the search. Finally the muskrat surfaces, dead but clutching a handful of soil for the Sky Woman, who takes the offering gratefully and uses seeds from The Tree of Life to begin her garden using her gratitude and the gifts from the animals, thus creating Turtle Island as we know it. Through the Sky Woman story, Kimmerer tells us that we can not "begin to move toward ecological and cultural sustainability if we cannot even imagine what the path feels like."[16]

Cherokee Stories of the Turtle Island Liars' Club by Christopher B. Taunton[edit]

Christopher B. Taunton's book provides a comprehensive look into Cherokee oral traditions and art to bring them into the contemporary moment. He put together his collection with three friends, also master storytellers, who get together to swap stories from around the 14 Cherokee states.[17] The first chapter of the book Beginnings starts with a telling of the Sky Woman story. Notably, this telling of Turtle Island has the water beetle dive for the earth necessary for the sky woman, where often you will see a muskrat or otter. Turtle Island is a running theme throughout the book, as it is the beginning of life and story.

We Are Water Protectors by Carole Lindstrom[edit]

We Are Water Protectors is a children's storybook written by Carole Lindstrom in 2020 in response to the building of the Dakota Access Pipeline, represented as a large black snake in the book. The book says that water is the source of all life, and it is all of ours duty to protect our water sources so that we can preserve not only ourselves but those of animals and the environment. The story draws important meanings from the Turtle Island creation story such as water as the origin of life and closes with a drawing of the main character returning the turtle to the water saying "We are stewards of the earth. Our spirits are not to be broken."[18]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d e f Converse & Parker 1906, p. 33.
  2. ^ a b c d Robinson & Filice 2018.
  3. ^ a b Jones & Moomaw 2002.
  4. ^ Miller, Jay. (June 1974) Why the World is on the Back of a Turtle Man, Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland, New Series, Vol. 9, No. 2 pp. 306–308, (including further references within the cited text)
  5. ^ Converse & Parker 1906, pp. 31–32.
  6. ^ a b Johansen & Mann 2000, p. 90.
  7. ^ a b Porter, Forrester & Ka-Hon-Hes 2008, pp. 52–53.
  8. ^ Converse & Parker 1906, p. 31.
  9. ^ Hills 2017, pp. 16–25.
  10. ^ Barnhill 1999, pp. xiv, 297–306, 327.
  11. ^ n/a, n/a. "Turtle Island Research Cooperative". Turtle Island Cooperative Farm & Research Center. Archived from the original on 2018-01-22. Retrieved 2018-01-21.
  12. ^ Rasmussen, B. (2017-01-23). "A Return to Roots: New Boise Nonprofit pursues cultivation of earth and mind". turtleislandfrcenter. Archived from the original on 2018-01-22. Retrieved 2018-01-21.
  13. ^ Canadian Association of University Teachers. "CAUT Guide to Acknowledging Traditional Territory" (PDF). Retrieved 19 April 2017.
  14. ^ a b "North America". TCTSY - Trauma Center Trauma-Sensitive Yoga. Retrieved 22 July 2021.
  15. ^ a b c King 2008, pp. 12–25.
  16. ^ Kimmerer 2013.
  17. ^ Teuton 2016.
  18. ^ Lindstrom & Goade 2020.

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