Turtle Island (Native American folklore)

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Turtle Island is a name for the Earth [1] or for North America, used by some Native American and First Nations people and by some Indigenous rights activists. The name is based on a common North American Indigenous creation story.



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]


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." [3] 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] [4] [5] Thus, when Iroquois cultures refer to the earth, they often call it Turtle Island. [5]

According to Converse and Parker, the Iroquois faith shared with Hinduism and 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. [6]

Indigenous rights activism and environmentalism

The name Turtle Island is used today by many Indigenous and First Nations cultures, and activists, especially since the 1970s when the term came into wider usage. [7]

The term has also become popular among non-Native environmental activists. 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. [8]


The term has been used by writers and musicians, with Gary Snyder's Turtle Island , winning the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry, the Turtle Island Quartet, a modern-day jazz string quartet, the soyfoods and Tofurky manufacturer Turtle Island Foods, and the Turtle Island Research Cooperative in Boise, Idaho. [9] [10]

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. Certain courses taught at some Canadian universities, as well as a number of student associations and events, convene by making such an acknowledgement, along with references to Turtle Island. [11]

See also

Related Research Articles

Iroquois mythology

Much of the mythology of the Iroquois has been preserved, including creation stories and some folktales. Recorded in wampum as recitations, written down later, the spellings of names differed as transliteration varies and spellings even in European languages were not entirely regularized. Different versions of some stories exist, reflecting different localities and different times. It is possible that the written versions were influenced by Christianity.

Hiawatha First Nations leader and co-founder of the Iroquois League

Hiawatha, also known as Ayenwathaaa or Aiionwatha, was a precolonial Native American/Indian leader and co-founder of the Iroquois Confederacy. He was a leader of the Onondaga people, the Mohawk people, or both. According to some accounts, he was born an Onondaga but adopted into the Mohawks.

Great Law of Peace

Among the Haudenosaunee the Great Law of Peace is the oral constitution of the Iroquois Confederacy. The law was written on wampum belts, conceived by Dekanawidah, known as the Great Peacemaker, and his spokesman Hiawatha. The original five member nations ratified this constitution near modern-day Victor, New York, with the sixth nation being added in 1722.

The Seneca are a group of indigenous Iroquoian-speaking people native to North America who historically lived south of Lake Ontario. Their nation was the farthest to the west within the Six Nations or Iroquois League (Haudenosaunee) in New York before the American Revolution.

Onondaga people

The Onondaga people are one of the original five constituent nations of the Iroquois (Haudenosaunee) Confederacy in northeast North America. Their traditional homeland is in and around present-day Onondaga County, New York, south of Lake Ontario. They are known as Gana’dagwëni:io’geh to the other Iroquois tribes. Being centrally located, they are considered the "Keepers of the Fire" in the figurative longhouse that shelters the Five Nations. The Cayuga and Seneca have territory to their west and the Oneida and Mohawk to their east. For this reason, the League of the Iroquois historically met at the Iroquois government's capital at Onondaga, as the traditional chiefs do today.

Handsome Lake

Handsome Lake was a Seneca religious leader of the Iroquois people. He was a half-brother to Cornplanter, a Seneca war chief.

Susquehannock Group of indigenous people native to North America

Susquehannock people, also called the Conestoga by the English, were Iroquoian-speaking Native Americans who lived in areas adjacent to the Susquehanna River and its tributaries ranging from its upper reaches in the southern part of what is now New York, through eastern and central Pennsylvania west of the Poconos and the upper Delaware River, with lands extending beyond the mouth of the Susquehanna in Maryland along the west bank of the Potomac at the north end of the Chesapeake Bay.

Economy of the Iroquois

The economy of the Haudenosaunee historically was based on communal production and combined elements of both horticulture and hunter-gatherer systems. Some have described the Iroquois economy as primitive communism. The tribes of the Iroquois Confederacy and other Northern Huron had their traditional territory in what is now New York State and the southern areas bordering the Great Lakes. The confederacy was originally composed of five tribes; the Mohawk, Onondaga, Oneida, Cayuga, and Seneca, who had created an alliance long before European contact. The Tuscarora were added as a sixth nation in the early eighteenth century after they migrated from North Carolina. The Huron peoples, located mostly in what is now Canada, were also Iroquioan-speaking and shared some culture, but were never part of the Iroquois.

The Great Peacemaker, sometimes referred to as Deganawida or Tekanawí:ta was by tradition, along with Jigonhsasee and Hiawatha, the founder of the Haudenosaunee, commonly called the Iroquois Confederacy. This is a political and cultural union of six Iroquoian-speaking Native American tribes residing in the present-day state of New York, northern Pennsylvania, and the eastern portion of the province of Ontario, Canada.

Abya Yala

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Tree of Peace

The Iroquois Tree of Peace finds its roots in a man named Dekanawida, the peace-giver. The legends surrounding his place amongst the Iroquois is based in his role in creating the Five Nations Confederacy, which consisted of the Mohawks, Oneidas, Onondagas, Cayugas, and Senecas, and his place as a cultural hero to the Haudenosaunee Nation, commonly known in Western culture as "Iroquois". The official title of the confederacy is, Kayanerenh-kowa as described by Paul A. Wallace, "it is also known as Kanonsionni, a term that describes both its geographical extent and its constitutional form". The myths and legends surrounding Dekanawida have the roots in the oral histories that followed many Native American tribes throughout their histories.

Clan Mother is a traditional role of elder matriarch women within certain Native American clans, who was typically in charge of appointing tribal chiefs and Faithkeepers.

Iroquois Northeast Native American confederacy

The Iroquois or Haudenosaunee are a historical indigenous confederacy in northeast North America. They were known during the colonial years to the French as the Iroquois League, later as the Iroquois Confederacy and to the English as the Five Nations, comprising the Mohawk, Onondaga, Oneida, Cayuga, and Seneca. After 1722, they accepted the Tuscarora people from the southeast into their confederacy, as they were also Iroquoian-speaking, consequently became known as the Six Nations.


Tadodaho was a Native American and sachem of the Onondaga nation before the Deganawidah and Hiawatha formed the Iroquois League. According to oral tradition, he had extraordinary characteristics and was widely feared, but he was persuaded to support the confederacy of the Five Nations.

Former colonies and territories in Canada Former political entities in what is now Canada.

A number of states and polities formerly claimed colonies and territories in Canada prior to the evolution of the current provinces and territories under the federal system. North America prior to colonization was occupied by a variety of indigenous groups consisting of band societies typical of the sparsely populated North, to loose confederacies made up of numerous hunting bands from a variety of ethnic groups, to more structured confederacies of sedentary farming villages, to stratified hereditary structures centred on a fishing economy. The colonization of Canada by Europeans began in the 10th century, when Norsemen explored and, ultimately unsuccessfully, attempted to settle areas of the northeastern fringes of North America. Early permanent European settlements in what is now Canada included the late 16th and 17th century French colonies of Acadia and Canada, the English colonies of Newfoundland (island) and Rupert's Land, the Scottish colonies of Nova Scotia and Port Royal.

Dunquat, known as the Half-King of the Wyandot people, sided with the Kingdom of Great Britain in the American Revolutionary War. He and his people moved to the Ohio country to fight the Americans in the west. He led a mixed band of about 200 Indians at the Siege of Fort Henry (1777). During the war, he protected Christian Delaware people from other members of their tribe prejudiced against their beliefs.

Half King "was particularly attentive to prevent all drunkenness, knowing that bloodshed and murder would immediately follow." He insisted on the removal of the Christian Indians from the vicinity of Sandusky, believing it to be unsafe for them to remain there; he also protected the Moravians and their converts from maltreatment when the missionaries were sent to Detroit ...

Wallace "Mad Bear" Anderson

Wallace "Mad Bear" Anderson was a Tuscarora Native American activist predominantly active in the 1950s who became a spokesman for Native American Sovereignty.

Mohawk Warrior Society

The Rotisken’rakéhte, also known as the Mohawk Warrior Society and the Kahnawake Warrior Society, is a Mohawk group which seeks to assert Mohawk authority over their traditional lands, including the use of tactics such as roadblocks, evictions, and occupations.

Bruce Elliott Johansen is an American academic and author. He is the Frederick W. Kayser Professor of Communication at the University of Nebraska at Omaha and is the author or editor of many books and articles, notably on environmental and Native American issues.

John Arthur Gibson Seneca chief

John Arthur Gibson (1850–1912) was a chief of the Seneca nation of the North American Iroquois confederation. Part Onondagan and part Senecan, he resided within the reserve of the Six Nations of the Grand River in Ontario, Canada. Knowledgeable about Iroquois culture, he is best known for the versions he provided of the Iroquois oral constitution, the Great Law of Peace. He acted as an advisor to the Canadian Department of Indian Affairs in matters relating both to Iroquois and non-Iroquois indigenous people. He was a well-respected player of the traditional Iroquois sport of lacrosse until he was blinded during a game when he was 31.


  1. 1 2 3 4 5 6 Converse and Parker 33
  2. 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 (June, 1974), pp. 306–308, including further references within the cited text)
  3. Converse and Parker 31-32
  4. Johansen and Mann 90
  5. 1 2 Porter, Tom (2008). And Grandma Said…: Iroquois Teachings, As Passed Down Through the Oral Tradition . Xlibris Corp. pp.  52–53. ISBN   9781436335652.
  6. Converse and Parker 31
  7. Encyclopedia of the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois Confederacy). Johansen, Bruce E. (Bruce Elliott), 1950-, Mann, Barbara Alice, 1947-. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press. 2000. ISBN   978-1-4294-7618-8. OCLC   154239396.CS1 maint: others (link)
  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.
  9. n/a, n/a. "Turtle Island Research Cooperative". Turtle Island Cooperative Farm & Research Center. Retrieved 2018-01-21.
  10. Rasmussen, B. (2017-01-23). "A Return to Roots: New Boise Nonprofit pursues cultivation of earth and mind". turtleislandfrcenter. Retrieved 2018-01-21.
  11. Canadian Association of University Teachers. "CAUT Guide to Acknowledging Traditional Territory" (PDF). Retrieved 19 April 2017.