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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.
Referring to North America as Turtle Island suggests a view of North America not merely as a land "discovered" and colonized by Europeans and people of European descent, but as a land inhabited and stewarded by a collection of rich, diverse, and civilized peoples.[clarification needed], a collection that may have room for both indigenous and colonizer cultures. This re-framing of the continent's identity is intended to bring about a better cohabitation of these two groups of people. Finally, the term suggests to some interpreters[who?] a more holistic relationship between the continent's ecology and its human inhabitants, visualizing Turtle Island as an amalgamation of bioregions.[clarification needed]
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 soy foods manufacturer Turtle Island Foods.