Turtle Talk


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When did you last see, or give thought to, the turtle or as it is sometimes called, the tortoise?

They are everywhere in our world, but being so close to the ground, people hardly notice them anymore. Occasionally we do see one trying to get across a busy road, but more often than not, we see the little fellow that did not make it.

It was not always like that for the turtle. When this land was 'Indian Country' the turtle shared a big part of the Indians' life. His gift of having his own home into which he could quickly retreat from danger, and his other gift of long life made him a creature of awe.

The mystery took on the dark side when it was discovered that the turtle's heart would keep beating for a while, after it died. Some warriors tried eating the turtle's beating heart in the belief that the phenomenon could in that way be transferred to the man. Of course it did not work, and their idea finally died out, saving many turtles from a foolish, premature death.

Baby sea turtles were seen as a meal when they left their shallow nest on the beach. Predators (including humans) were ready to snatch them when the baby turtles scrambled towards the sea. Happily, nowadays interested persons guard the known nesting places and do their best to keep birds, animals and 'others' away.

The bond between the Indian and the turtle remains to this day. Signs of the turtle are seen in their beautiful beadwork and paintings on their drums and shields. Turtle shells are made into pouches, dance rattles and medicine rattles. At any powwow you don't have to look far.

It's easy to see why the Indians' regalia and paraphernalia reflect the turtle when you read their folklore. Every tribe has at least one or more stories of how our earth (North and Central America) sits on the back of the giant turtle. The Indians' remarkable imagination has given them an explanation for just about everything in their lives.

Using their nature loving minds, what safer place for our earth to rest, than on the back of the strong, giant turtle? The legend moved through every tribe, each one adding its own storytellers embellishments.

The Iroquois went a bit further and even used the turtle to explain why the earth sometimes shook. It meant the turtle was stretching.

These same people believed their origin began with Sky woman, who one day fell out of the heavens. Seeing her falling, the white water birds quickly spread their wings to catch her. Catch her they did, but the poor birds were in a flutter. They were too fragile to hold her.

Quickly, they placed her on the back of the giant turtle. The mud on his back began to spread out and form the land. The Sky woman began to make people, and the Iroquois nation was born. What a beautiful way of explaining their creation story.

Far to the west, the Bruel Sioux told it this way. The Creator Person had seen two worlds destroyed by man. He listened to the cries of the animals to give them one more chance. He looked around at the waters and finally relented.

Reaching into his sacred pouch, he drew out an aquatic bird; the loon. He told the loon to dive into the water and bring up some mud so he could make another world. The loon did as it was told, but could not find any mud. He then sent down an otter, but it too was unsuccessful.

For a third time the Creator Person reached into his bag, this time pulling out a beaver. Surely this would be the right one, but the beaver too, failed to bring mud to the surface.

"You have one more chance" the Creator Person told the animals, and reaching into his bag one last time, pulled out the turtle and placed him in the water. The turtle sank out of sight. A long time passed, and it looked as if he was not going to come back up.

The Creator Person shook his head, and was about to leave, when suddenly the turtle rose from the water covered with mud. The turtle grew and grew and the mud on his back became land.

Trees began to grow. Soon there were people. Everyone would be safe this time for the land on which they lived rested safely on the back of the giant turtle.

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Jonathan Meader
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That's just two of the countless stories the Indians tell about the turtle, but let's not forget that there were also two men in the 'Wasichus' world who also noted the turtle's strength and perseverance.

One was John Steinbeck who devoted an entire chapter of his novel 'The Grapes of Wrath', to the turtle.

Even before that, in the 6th Century, a Greek slave by the name of Aesop taught us a good lesson in his story called 'The tortoise and the hare.'

Grandmother Two Bears.


This story and many mores stories are now available in the new book The Story Teller by Grandmother Two Bears. To order the Grandmother Two Bears book, use the following button.

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