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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. In the Seneca language, the mythical turtle is called Hah-nu-nah, while the name for an everyday turtle is ha-no-wa.
The name Turtle Island is used today by many Native tribes, Native rights activists, and environmental activists, especially since the 1970s when the term came into wider usage. In a later essay, published in At Home on the Earth, 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.