The Turtle Clan
Written and researched by Margaret nee Knight Sypniewski, B.F.A.

drawing by Diana Mayo

The Turtle Clan

The turtle came afloat and he shared all he knew
Said nothing's more sacred than the natural truth
Then writing in the ivory sand
The message that I now understand
Welcome to the natural land

An except from The Natural Place by David Black

The Turtle Clan (A'no':wara) is one of the principal clans of the Mohawks. Turtle symbolizes our entire Earth, and therefore is associated with respect of the Earth and Earth Elements. Approximately two-thirds of the earth's surface is covered with water, most of it in the form of vast salty oceans and seas. Even the continents have masses of freshwater lakes, marshes and rivers. Animal life is thought to have originated in the sea and many of the world's simplest and beautiful forms still exist in this environment (Burton).

The North American Continent is called "Turtle Island" in Native American mythology and legend. The world of the USA aboriginals lived on the back of the Turtle, much like Atlas was thought to have supported the world on his shoulders. Turtle Clan members are the examiners of the state of things within the tribal unit. They take issues to theWolf Clan first and the Bear Clan second, only after the turtle sachems and wolf sachems have discussed a matter fully. Bear then studies the Great Laws and decide if the issue can be solved. Turtle teaches us to be patient with others, and to never give up on an issue worth fighting for. The Turtle clan is strong, wise and is well-respected.

Turtles are more ancient than any other vertebrate animal. Turtles carry their home on their backs. The shell is their backbone and ribs. Turtles are omnivorous. They eat insects, plants, fish, amphibians, and even small mammals on occasion. Turtle symbolizes peace of mind. Turtles have slow metabolisms and teach us to slow down. Turtle Clan members perform best in calm, ordinary and normal day to day activities. They do not like surprises. Turtle Clan people tend to withdraw themselves from others making it difficult to really get to know them. They are moody and tend to shy away from anything new. (Porter, Tom, Clanology. North American Indian Travelling College, 1993) The Turtle Clan is an earth clan. Turtle reminds us to care for, protect, and nurture Mother Earth. Earth people are said to be stable and constant in their opinions, ideals, and ideas. They are dependable and loyal, but with a tendency to become too rigid or stubborn. Turtles can live on both the earth and in water. Thus Turtle Clan members are reputed to be very adaptable to life's traumas.

Rattles are made from Turtle's shell to call the spirits and give more power to the sacred songs (Andrews, Ted Animal Speak. St Paul, Minn.: Llewellyn Publications, 1995.)


Skywoman Descending Great Turtle Island by Arnold Jacobs (Onondaga) Copyrighted 1981.

THE EARTH ON TURTLE'S BACK (the Onondaga version)

Before the Earth existed, there was only water. In the Clouds was Skyland, where a sacred Great Tree grew. The Great Tree had branches that pointed to the four cardinal directions (North, South, East, and West).

An ancient chief lived in Skyland. His wife was with child and she had a dream that the Great Tree was uprooted. Dreams were very important to the "Ancient Chief." The chief and his men tried to pull the tree loose, but the taproot was very deep.

Finally, the "Ancient Chief," using all his energy, managed to loosen the soil from around the tree. It was uprooted and laid upon its side. However, the tree left a large hole in Skyland. The chief's wife looked down the hole and saw something glittering like water. She steadied herself on the branches of the Great Tree. However, the branch snapped and broke and she fell down endlessly.

Two Swans saw this women and flew up to help her so as to cushion her fall. They then realized that the woman was not like them...she did not have webbed feet or waterproof feathers. This creature could not live in the water. All the animals decided that she would die if they did not think of a plan to save her.

After much discussion, they decide that she was made to live on Earth. However, the only Earth was at the bottom of the continuous oceans and streams. The Duck, the Beaver, and the Loon all tried to bring Earth from the bottom to the top of the water. They all failed. Then the Muskrat, decided to try. He took on a determined look and went up and down, until finally he loosened some Earth. However, they knew Earth did not float on water, so Turtle volunteered to carry Earth on his back. Muskrat put Earth on Turtle's back, but her paw marks still remain to this day.

After Earth reached Turtle's back, it began to increase in size until it became what we today call Turtle Island (North America). The Swans flew down carrying Sky Woman to her new home. Sky Woman relaxed and opened her hand (that held those leaves and seeds from the Great Tree). The seeds fell to Earth, germinated and many new trees grew on Turtle Island.

Life on Earth had begun. Today Mother Earth provides us with food, air, water, and shelter. Turtle with the Great Tree on his back is the symbol of the Iroquois Nation.(Caduto, Michael J.and Joseph Bruchac,Keepers of the Earth. Golden, CO.: Fulcrum, Inc., 1989)



Just as my Grandfather had said
It was during a rainy season
When the Great Cloud Turtle
Came over the mountains from the North
To cleanse itself once again

Remembering old Legends
I waited and watched as it approached
A massive head peered out
Of an ever-expanding shell
Overshadowing the entire countryside
It floated slowly and evenly
As it neared me
The sky growing darker

As my Grandfather had said
It was the Spirit Turtle
Purifying its earthen body below
The shell of the Great Snapping Turtle
Which held up the earth and its original beings.

As the cloud passed directly over me
The rain stopped and the wind ceased.
Looking up into the mist, as if in a dream
I saw my Grandmother breaking unwanted pots
And burying the shards in the mud
The Turtle owered its head
Gazing down at me with lightning eyes
Then its huge tail
Cast a last shadow on me.

Two days later, I heard that Three Mile Island
Was destroyed by a mysterious storm cloud.
I smiled.
Just as my grandfather had said. Tom Huff....



The Formation of the Turtle Clan was told as a story about mud turtles in a small lake or pond. During an especially dry summer, the pool dried up. The turtles then had to walk to find a new source of water. One rather plump turtle had difficulty making this trip, since he was not used to exercising. The sun blistered his shell until the heat penetrated and blistered his shoulders. His pain caused him to throw off his shell. Now without his shell he was unprotected from the elements. He had to find shelter and make many changes in his life. He went through many transformations and eventually became a man. This man was said to be the progenitor of the Turtle Clan (Smith, E.A., Myths of the Iroquois.An Iroqrafts Publication, reprinted by I.P.A.C.S. Ltd of Oshweken, Ontario, Canada.).



In Chinese mythology, the tortoise is one of the "Four Sacred Creatures." The other four are the imaginary: the unicorn, the dragon, and the phoenix. The tortoise symbolized long life, since tortoises can live for more than 150 years. They also represent military might and are the emblem of the Chinese royal family.

Some Native Americans (other than the Iroquois), in their stories told to children, say that earthquakes are caused by the turtle (on whose back the earth was built), shaking its shell.

Hindus believed that Vishnu, the protector of the universe, has appeared on Earth ten times, in different disguises. One of his forms was as the tortoise Kurma. Kurma carried a mountain on his back.


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