Turtle Island (Plain-Language Summary) | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Turtle Island (Plain-Language Summary)

Turtle Island is another name for North America. The origin of the name comes from the Algonquian-and-Iroquoian-speaking peoples. They are from the Northeastern part of North America. The stories are about a turtle that carries the world on its back. It is a symbol for life, the earth, and Indigenous identity. It also shows a deep appreciation for nature.

This article is a plain-language summary of Turtle Island. If you are interested in reading about this topic in more depth, please see our full-length entry, Turtle Island.

Turtle Island

The Story

The story of Turtle Island is a creation story (see Religion and Spirituality of Indigenous Peoples in Canada). There are many different versions of the story. An Ojibwe version emphasizes flooding. It is said that the Creator made a flood to make the world clean again. Before the flood, the different peoples were fighting each other. The figure of Nanabush is very important in this version. Nanabush is supernatural. Nanabush helped recreate life in others. Nanabush asked animals to swim to the bottom to find earth. A muskrat found some, but the animal died. Afterward, Nanabush put this earth on the back of a turtle. In doing so, an island was made – Turtle Island.

Some Haudenosaunee versions emphasize the sky. In this version, a Sky Woman, who was pregnant, fell from the sky and was heading to earth. Birds caught her when she was falling and then put her on the back of a turtle. She was very grateful to the birds. In some versions of the story, after the Sky Woman was on the turtle the earth began to expand. In still other versions of the story, some animals came and brought mud and put it on the back of the turtle.

Scholars call the stories of Turtle Island “earth-diver myths.” These stories explain the creation of the world. In these stories, animals frequently help to form the earth with the aid of supernatural beings.

Colonization and Reclamation

Settlers did not use the term Turtle Island to describe this land. They renamed it North America – the term used today. In the recent past, Indigenous peoples have tried to reclaim the term Turtle Island. In this case, reclaim means to take back, or to reintroduce the term Turtle Island. Indigenous peoples have tried to reclaim many other words and terms recently. For example, in Toronto some Indigenous peoples have campaigned to replace English street names with Ojibwe street names. For a little while, Spadina Road became Ishpadinaa and Davenport Road became Gete-Onigaming. Reclamation is not an easy process. One reason why it is difficult is that various Indigenous groups have various names for various places. For instance, the Stoney-Nakoda wanted to rename Calgary Wichispa Oyada. The Siksika wanted to rename it Mohkinstsis-aka-piyosis.

There has been some success in regard to reclaiming the term Turtle Island. Some organizations have decided to use the term. The Toronto Zoo created the Turtle Island Conservation Program and there is now the Turtle Island News.

In addition to this, school boards around Canada have adopted curricula that teach about Turtle Island. Also, the CBC and McGill University have created Turtle Island Reads. This program shares stories about Indigenous peoples by Indigenous peoples. Furthermore, the story of Turtle Island was included in a recent atlas called the Indigenous Peoples Atlas of Canada. The atlas has reclaimed many traditional Indigenous place names as well.