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Notes from Turtle Island

The North American continent was known as the Great Turtle Island by the ancient indigenous people who lived here. All the land, the mountains, the rivers—the beauty, was carried on the back of Mother Turtle.  And so are we, her children, all the animals, the flyers, the fish, the four-legged and the two-legged and we are all here together.  We are all related.

The Native storytellers tell this tale. First, the world was dark water and it swirled around and around.  Then there were people.  They lived in the sky world assisted by the bird tribes who held them up.  In this high-up world a young woman became sick.  The doctor, the shaman, could do nothing to help her.  That night the shaman had a mysterious dream and he related it to all the people who lived in the sky world.  They put the young woman next to the sacred tree which was the source of all life.  Following the instructions of the dream, the tree was dug up and it quickly dried up and died.

A warrior saw what had been done to the sacred tree.  He became very angry.  He said, “You fools, you have destroyed the source of our blessings.  You have done an injustice to us all.” The warrior kicked the sick woman through the hole where they had dug up the tree. The woman plummeted downward, tumbling this way and that–over and over again. Birds from the eagle tribe saw her falling and came to her rescue.  Swooping underneath her, many eagles caught her easily. But she was heavy. The birds soon tired.  The eagles made a cry, “Who will care for this poor woman?” Turtle answered that she would.  And she did but she soon got tired of the job too. She cried out, “What can be done for this poor woman?”
The creatures that lived in and on the water heard the turtle and hatched a plan to save her.  Mud was brought up from the bottom of the ocean and placed on the turtle’s back and spread out and around.  The sea creatures worked hard until there was a large enough area for the woman to live upon. Slowly, she healed. She built a house, planted a garden and raised a large family. The enthusiastic water creatures continued to bring up earth.  Soon there was enough and a great island emerged from the depths. This was Turtle Island.

Turtle Island was a good medicine place. But the humans did not know yet how to live.  The animals came to teach them and show them a worthwhile way of life.  Each animal shared talents and skills. People followed different animals. The animal clans were born. Every animal had a clan, for instance, the wolf clan. With the wolf, the teaching lodges were built and the memories, traditions and ceremonies were passed to succeeding generations.  The wolf taught medicine songs, warrior and hunting skills, power dances and loyalty to the pack. Then there were the buffalo clans.  The buffalo taught a new spiritual way, a way of selflessness, a way of reverence, prayer and plenty. The bear clans were the dreaming clans. They taught about personal empowerment and were visionaries. Bear clan people were great trackers, warriors, shaman and healers.

There were soon families, clans, nations.  Of course the first clans were the turtle clans and they taught about respecting and protecting the sacred earth and all of life. The turtle goes one step at a time.  Slow and steady the turtle works for the environment.  They instill an appreciation for all the gifts of our mother planet.  They appreciate the simple splendor of plants, rocks and springs. The turtle path, they say, is the way to true peace and prosperity.  It is often said that following turtle teachings will lead us out of divisiveness and into a new world of loving concord.  Turtles, they say, hold the responsibility for our future.
Turtle Island has been renamed and cut up into parcels with set boundaries and our Mother has been desecrated in many ways. According to Native American stories the weight on Mother Turtle’s back is getting heavier and heavier and the people are starting to become unbalanced, falling from our mother and perishing. Turtle teaches us that we are here as caretakers of the sacred earth and we must learn to live in harmony with all that is.  We must tread lightly upon Mother Turtle’s back—so it is said.

David Carson was raised in Oklahoma Indian Country and is of Choctaw descent. He is the author of How to find your spirit AnimalCrossing into Medicine Country: A Journey into Native American Healing and is co-creator of the bestselling Medicine Cards: The Discovery of Power through the Ways of the Animals, which explains how to receive guidance from animals.