Turtle Island (North America)

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Turtle Island is the name of North America, according to some Indigenous groups.


The Lenape story of the "Great Turtle" was first recorded between 1678 and 1680 by Jasper Danckaerts. The story is shared by other Northeastern Woodlands tribes, notably the Iroquois.[1]


According to Iroquois oral history, Sky Woman fell down to the earth when it was covered with water. Various animals tried to swim to the bottom of the ocean to bring back dirt to create land. Muskrat succeeded in gathering dirt, which was placed on the back of a turtle, which grew into the land known today as North America.[2][3] In the Seneca language, the mythical turtle is called Hah-nu-nah,[4] while the name for an everyday turtle is ha-no-wa.[5]


The term originates mainly from oral tradition, in the tale of the westward travel of the Anishinaabe tribe on the land known as Turtle Island, as recorded also in the birch bark scrolls.[6]

Indigenous rights activism and environmentalism[edit]

The name Turtle Island is used today by many Native tribes, Native rights activists, and environmental activists,[7] especially since the 1970s when the term came into wider usage. In a later essay, published in At Home on the Earth,[8] Gary Snyder claimed this title as a term referring to North America that 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.


The term has been used by writers and musicians, as well as others. Notable uses include Gary Snyder's Turtle Island, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry, the Turtle Island Quartet, a modern-day jazz string quartet, and soyfoods and Tofurky manufacturer Turtle Island Foods.

See also[edit]

  • Abya Yala - a name used by the Kuna people and others to refer to the American continent since before the Columbus arrival.
  • Anahuac - a proposed Nican Tlaca name for North America
  • Aotearoa - indigenous name often used for New Zealand
  • Azania - a proposed "indigenous name" for South Africa
  • Aztlán - the legendary ancestral home of the Aztec peoples, possibly located between northwestern Mexico and southwest US
  • Cemanahuac - a proposed Nican Tlaca name for North and South America
  • Geographical renaming - the practice of political renaming
  • Mexica Movement - an organization that seeks to create a nation called Cemanahuac
  • World Turtle
  • Zipacna was the Mayan demonic (crocodilian) personification of the earth's crust and was the name used by the Mesoamerican groups to refer to their world, which grew into the land known today as the American continent. It is the name of the Central American isthmus, according to the Popol Vuh. Zipacna was characterized as a large, arrogant and violent crocodile whose spiny back symbolized the mountainous earth floating on the primordial sea, which distinguishes Central America's seismic and volcanic landscape.


  1. ^ Why the World is on the Back of a Turtle - Miller, Jay; Man, Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland, New Series, Vol. 9, No. 2 (Jun., 1974), pp. 306–308, including further references within the cited text)
  2. ^ Converse and Parker 3
  3. ^ Johansen and Mann 90
  4. ^ Converse and Parker 33
  5. ^ Converse and Parker 31
  6. ^ The Ojibwe Peoples and Their Culture
  7. ^ Johansen and Mann 319
  8. ^ Barnhill, David Landis (ed. and introd.). 1999. At Home on the Earth: Becoming Native to Our Place: A Multicultural Anthology. (pp. 297-306). Berkeley: University of California Press, xiv, 327 pp.