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Creating Turtle Island - The North America of Today

Though the details may vary slightly from tribal nation to tribal nation - it's always the animal doodems (clans) that save the two-leggeds when it comes to Indigenous creation stories - even building North American on the back of a Mikinaak (Turtle)

*words followed by parenthesis are translations from Ojibwe

Often times when reviewing indigenous literature or information, a term commonly encountered is Turtle Island. But what, exactly, is Turtle Island? Where is it? Can we go there? Is it full of turtles? Is that what all the fuss about saving the turtles is?


No, that's not what the fuss is about but yes, by all means, SAVE THE TURTLES! Whether that means using metal straws or picking one up for a lift across a busy road, do it. Because turtles are cool and helping those that need it is even cooler - even if they're packing a hard shell. Humans can have those, too.


But, ode to turtles aside, Turtle Island is not some celebrity infested resort amongst tranquil tropical waters that NEVER seem to have seaweed - it is, in fact, North America. Yes, the whole ass continent. And...after further ponderance, perhaps the "celebrity infested" part may be somewhat true, but I'm trying my damndest to keep my attention span on task so please STAY WITH ME!


So, yes, short version, Turtle Island refers to the continent of North America. The Central American isthmus makes up the mikinaak's (turtle's) tail, with the northern reaches of Canada shaping mikinaak's head. Alaska and Maine outline his front feet, with Baja California and Florida mapping out his rear feet.


In most indigenous cultures, the mikinaak (turtle) is representative of truth and wisdom, of the physical and spiritual connection to Mother Earth. It is considered a sacred animal to many if not all indigenous peoples and often depicts references to the Seven Grandfather Teachings. The Seven Grandfather's have their own story, but they refer to the seven tenets of the Original Instructions to the Anishnaabe (Original People) from Gitchi Manidoo (Great Spirit/Creator). Those instructions have led our ancestors and continue to provide the foundation to achieving Mino Bimaadiziwin (Good Healthy Life):

  1. Debwewin - Truth, represented by Turtle (mikinaak)

  2. Dabasendiziwin - Humility, as represented by Wolf (ma'iingan)

  3. Manaaji'idiwin - Respect, as represented by Buffalo (mashkode)

  4. Zaagi'idiwin - Love, as represented by Eagle (migizii)

  5. Gwayakwaadiziwin - Honesty, as represented by Raven (gaagaagi) or Sabe

  6. Zoongide'ewin - Courage, as represented by Bear (makwa)

  7. Nibwaakaawin - Wisdom, as represented by Beaver (amik)

Many of the animals above are also used to represent the various clan systems that comprise most indigenous nations and, as the various creation stories demonstrate, our relationships with animals and the earth (aki) has been a co-existent and co-dependent one from the initial spark of human spirit. We learn from them, we create from them, we subsist on them, and we survive only because of them.


So, back to the creation of Turtle Island, aka, North America. There are two stories that resonate to me personally, and though extremely similar, there are differences. That's a common theme amongst most indigenous creation stories, but as they say - where there's smoke, there's fire. If so many are the same...perhaps they are in fact....true?


As a member of the Sault Sainte Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians, I am of Ojibwe descent. The Ojibwe, along with the Odawa and Potawatomi tribes, make up what is known as the Council of the Three Fires, the Anishnaabe (Original People) who migrated from the east coast in the first fire of the Eighth Fire Prophecy. More on that later...



The Ojibwe story of Turtle Island tells how Nanabozho (First Man, as created by Gitchi Manidoo/Great Spirit) created new land once the earth had become flooded as a result of his fight with the Maji Manidoo (Bad Spirits). Nanabozho is part manidoo (spirit) and part human and, according to Ojibwe stories, is known to be a trickster and passes on teachings through his various shenanigans. Since he is part human, he makes mistakes - but he learns, from the world with all its plants and animals, how to be a good human. Not by changing or controlling the world, but existing with it for the survival of both.



Well, the earth was flooded due to one of his battles and while seeking shelter in a tree, he sees a mikinaak (turtle) swimming by and climbs on the turtle's shell to escape the still rising water. While afloat on the turtle, many other animals came to see what was going on with Nanabozho...the loon (maang), the beaver (amik), the muskrat (wazhashk)...all came to see why Nanabozho was floating around on a turtle. Even eagle (migizii) and crane (ajijaak) flew in to see the show. Nanabozho realized if the Anishnaabe were going to have a chance at this life thing, they were definitely going to need more space. He asked the animals for their assistance as he had knew there was land underneath all the water, but he wouldn't be able to dive that deep to get it for what he needed it for. Half manidoo half human problems.



So one by one, the animals dove down deeeeep to get a bit of earth to bring back to Nanabozho. But before they were able to reach the depths needed to grab it, the lack of air forced them back, gasping to the surface. Just when it looked as though it would prove to be an impossible task, the smallest of the divers offered to make the final attempt. Not one of the animals thought Wazhashk (muskrat) would be successful and after waiting longer than any of the animals had taken with no sign of the little guy...it seemed they may have been right.


But then, as the animals began to turn away, Wazhashk's limp body rose to the surface of the water...he had given his life for his friend Nanabozho and for the humans Nanabozho loved so much. His effort had not been in vain, however, because clutched in his little tiny muskrat paws was a handful of wet mud he had pulled from the depths and brought back to the light of day. Nanabozho then took that mud Wazhashk had given his life for and began to spread it in a circle on the back of mikinaak (turtle). As he swirled it and swirled it, migizii (eagle), crane (ajijaak), raven (gaagaagi) flew in graceful arcs and loops in the star-filled sky above him. Slowly, the small bit of mud grew bigger and bigger - eventually growing big enough to provide home for the Anishnaabe - from the snowcovered peaks of Alaska to the rainforest covered coasts of Central America.


Turtle Island - civilization built on Mikinaak (Turtle / Truth) by the sacrifice of the humble Wazhashk (Muskrat).


Another creation story that does have ties into this one also speaks to me - perhaps it will to you, too. The Haudenosaunee story of Sky Woman and her fall to Turtle Island from the Star World also has Wazhashk coming in clutch with the mudpie makings for a home on mikinaak's back.



There's always been references to the Star World amongst indigenous stories, going back to ancient art work on cave and lake shore rock walls. In fact, there are multiple versions across Indian Country that speak to these same creation stories, involving both Nanabozho and Sky Woman, as well as all of the directions in existence: North, East, South, West, Above, and Below.



I mean, even the Neverending Story knows about Turtle Island. Js. ;)


But - since Winter is the time for storytelling in Ojibwe culture - we'll save those ones for another day. Chi miigwetch (Big Thank You) for continuing to read these ramblings of a small town indigenous girl.



Wahsay Geezhgo Kway

"Shining Sky Woman"


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