- LOCATION: Vermont
- COORDINATES: UNDISCLOSED
- FEATURES: Stone walls, stone piles, turtle effigy, rocking arrowhead stone
On a field trip to Vermont to explore a site with close to 200 stone piles, one of the very first ones I encountered looks strikingly like the representation of a turtle, particularly the stone that might be it’s head.
The turtle was an imperative part of the Native American world view, as it was the main animal in the creation story of the Algonquin and Iroquoian speaking people, and possibly others as well. Although the story varied some from tribe to tribe, the main tenet is the same; that Turtle Island (North America) was formed when a turtle came out of the water.
Some versions are that the turtle had earth on it’s back when it came out of the water, as many turtles are seen in the spring coming out of ponds, still carrying the mud on their backs from their hibernations in the mud, yet other versions have the beaver or beavers carry the earth onto the back of the turtle.
This Iroquoian version of the creation story is taken from Converse:
The Earth was a thought in the mind of the ruler of a great island floating above the clouds. This ruler was called by various names, among them Ha-wen-ni-yu, meaning He who governs or The Ruler. The island is a place of calm where all needs are provided and there is no pain or death. On this island grew a great apple tree where the inhabitants held council. The Ruler said “let us make a new place where another people can grow. Under our council tree is a great sea of clouds which calls out for light.” He ordered the council tree to be uprooted and he looked down into the depths. He had Ata-en-sic, Sky Woman, look down. He heard the voice of the sea calling; he told Ata-en-sic, who was pregnant, to bring it life. He wrapped her in light and dropped her down through the hole. All the birds and animals who lived in the great cloud sea were panicked. The Duck asked “where can it rest?” “Only the earth can hold it,” replied the Beaver—the oeh-dah from the bottom of our great sea—”I will get some.” The Beaver dove down, but never came up. Then the Duck tried, but its dead body floated to the surface. Many of the other birds and animals tried and failed. Finally, the Muskrat returned with some earth in his paws. “It’s heavy”, he said, “who can support it?” The Turtle volunteered, and the earth was placed on top of his shell. When the earth was ready the birds flew up and carried Ata-en-sic on their wings to the Turtle’s back. This is how Hah-nu-nah, the Turtle, came to be the earth bearer. When he moves the sea gets rough and the earth shakes.
(Converse, Harriet Maxwell (Ya-ie-wa-no); Parker, Arthur Caswell (Ga-wa-so-wa-neh) (December 15, 1908). “Myths and Legends of the New York State Iroquois”. Education Department Bulletin. University of the State of New York: 10–17.)
And this explanation of an Algonquin version is taken from The Canadian Encyclopedia:
Story of Turtle Island
The story of Turtle Island varies among Indigenous communities, but by most accounts, it acts as a creation story that places emphasis on the turtle as a symbol of life and earth. The following versions are brief reinterpretations of stories shared by Indigenous peoples. In no way do these examples represent all variations of the tale; they merely seek to demonstrate general characteristics and plots of different stories.
In some Ojibwe oral traditions, the story of Turtle Island begins with a flooded Earth. The Creator had cleansed the world of feuding peoples in order to begin life anew. Some animals survived the flood, such as the loon, the muskrat and the turtle. Nanabush (Nanabozo) (or Weesakayjack in some Cree tales) — a supernatural being who has the power to create life in others — was also present. Nanabush asked the animals to swim deep beneath the water and collect soil that would be used to recreate the world. One by one the animals tried, but one by one they failed. The last animal that tried — the muskrat — was underwater for a long time, and when it resurfaced, the little animal had wet soil in its paws. The journey took the muskrat’s life, but the creature did not die in vain. Nanabush took the soil and put it on a willing turtle’s back. This became known as Turtle Island, the centre of creation.
Many Haudenosaunee versions of the tale start in the Sky World — a land in the heavens where supernatural beings existed. One day, a pregnant Sky Woman fell through a hole under the roots of a tree and descended to Earth. Gently guided down by birds that saw her falling through the sky, she was placed safely onto a turtle’s back. Sky Woman was grateful to the animals for helping her. In some versions, her appreciation was so powerful that the earth began to grow around her, forming Turtle Island. In other versions, the animals brought forth mud from the bottom of the water, which grew on top of turtle’s back and formed a new land for Sky Woman and her descendants — Turtle Island.
Scholars tend to describe tales like Turtle Island as “earth-diver myths” — stories that in some way connect the origin of the world to beings (often animals) that dove into ancient waters to retrieve soil used to create (or recreate) the world as we know it. Such tales also often involve the presence of supernatural beings, such as transformers or tricksters, and a Creator.