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First Nations Stories

Turtle Island — where’s that?

Published on July 13, 2017 | Last Updated April 05, 2022
A giant turtle with a big forest on its shell, swimming in the ocean

Turtle Island might sound like some far away island in the sea, but it's actually what some Indigenous people call the continent of North America, while others, such as the Ojibwa, use it to refer to the whole world.

What is Turtle Island?

artwork of giant turtle with land on its back, swimming in the water

A depiction of Turtle Island. (Pixabay)

The name Turtle Island comes from First Nations. Depending on the storyteller the story is different, but they mostly agree that the turtle is part of the creation story (a story about how everything came to be).

a flooded meadow with trees

An area covered by deep floods. (Pixabay)

Some Nations believe that the Creator of all things flooded the Earth because the people couldn’t get along and were fighting. In one version, only the animals and Nanabush (or Nanabozho), a spirit that appears in many Ojibwa (say “oh-JIB-wah”) legends, survived. He has an Anishinaabe (say "uh-NISH-ih-NAH-bay") mother and a spirit father, so he is half spirit and half human.

How was Turtle Island created?

a man diving down in dark water

Diving down trying to reach the bottom. (Pixabay)

Here's how one creation story, based on an Ojibwa version, goes:

When the Creator flooded the Earth, Nanabush was left floating with the animals. He had the amazing idea to dive down to the bottom of the water and bring back some earth to create new land.

Nanabush dove down into the water over and over, but no matter how hard he tried, he couldn’t reach the bottom. When he grew too tired, animals that were used to diving down into the water tried.

The loon

a close up of a loon, it's black and white with red eyes

A common loon. (Pixabay)

The loon tried to reach the bottom but the water was too deep. When he was too tired, the turtle tried. But he couldn’t reach the bottom either. Finally there was no one left to take a turn.

The muskrat

two wet muskrats drying off on rocks

Muskrats drying off. (Pixabay)

The muskrat came forward and offered to try. The other animals laughed at him because he wasn’t used to diving. But the muskrat took a deep breath and dove down into the water. The other animals and Nanabush waited. They looked in the water for the muskrat. But the muskrat didn’t appear.

They waited a very long time, and had given up when they finally saw the muskrat! They rushed to him as he breathed his last breath. As the muskrat died, they noticed that he was clutching earth that he had brought up from the water.

The turtle

a turtle walking along the sand

A turtle going for a walk. (Pixabay)

The turtle told them that if the muskrat was willing to give his life, then he could give them his shell. They could put the earth that the Muskrat had brought them on his back and he would carry it for them. The winds blew and spread the earth around. That little bit of earth that the Muskrat had brought back became Turtle Island.

Did you know?

Old statue of a turtle in China's Forbidden City

Turtle statue in the Forbidden City in China. (Pixabay)

Did you know many cultures all over the world celebrate turtles? In African stories, the turtle is the smartest animal. In Chinese mythology, the turtle is a very powerful symbol. And in Tahiti, the turtle is the lord of the oceans.

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