Turtle Island (North America)

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Turtle Island is the name of North America, according to some aboriginal 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 Anishinabe 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]


  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.