WITH BOTH LONG & TURTLE ISLAND, MUCH WORK
by Mankh (Walter E. Harris III)
“The East gate of Turtle Island, where the Sun and the Water touch the Earth at once.”
~ Tiokasin Ghosthorse, host of First Voices Indigenous Radio
In a world of high-speed computer connections, HOV lanes, and express lines at the
supermarket, what does a turtle have to teach us? The question is only part rhetorical
because the significance of Turtle Island goes fathoms deep.
In the introductory note to his book Turtle Island with “Four Changes”, a Pulitzer Prize
winner in 1975, Gary Snyder wrote: “The “U.S.A.” and its states and counties are
arbitrary and inaccurate impositions on what really is here… Hark again to those roots, to
see our ancient solidarity, and then to the work of being together on Turtle Island.”
While many cultures — including Hindu, Chinese, African, Australian aborigines, and
Caribbean — acknowledge riding on the turtle’s back, Turtle Island is most often
mentioned by Indigenous Peoples of North, Central, and South America. On the eastern
section of Long Island the Shinnecock trace their ancestry as far back as 10,000 years or
more, yet only in 2010 were they granted federal recognition!
According to David Bunn Martine, director and curator of the Shinnecock Nation
Cultural Center and Museum, “The understanding of Turtle Island as it relates to
Shinnecock is most completely explained through some of the research of Dr. John A.
Strong. In one of his books, The Algonquian Peoples of Long Island From Earliest Times
to 1700, he explains that a Lenape or Delaware elder in the vicinity of New York City
explained the origins of first man and woman on the back of a turtle in a large, vast sea.
Since we are very closely related to the Delaware who occupied the western portion of
Long Island, this story would be applied to us as well.”
At the center of the Shinnecock Nation seal is a turtle. Martine, who designed the seal,
says: “The turtle is in the center because it figures prominently in the origin stories of the
people. The turtle is in the water with a rising sun representing a bright future for the
Turtle Island lore tells of Sky Woman . . . who came down through a hole in the sky . . .
and landed on the turtle’s back. All else was water. Then, various animals volunteered to
dive deep in search of finding a bit of dirt or mud (from the bottom of the ocean). Once
found, that bit of earth, placed on the swimming turtle’s shell, served as the ‘seed’ of the
planet aka Mother Earth.
Fast forward (pardon the oxymoronic nature of that phrase) to today’s polar ice cap melt,
rising sea levels, and the greater potential for coastal flooding — Long Islanders, as well
as city dwellers, would be wise to tune in to the cooperation and compassion needed to
sustain life on this fore-flipper of Turtle Island.
Martine says that Turtle Island represents “earth energies and it also has meaning for the
origins of its spiritual legends or spiritual stories which pertain to locations where
spiritual beings carried out various activities in the distant past. These bring great
meaning to specific locations which impact the origin stories of the various belief
systems of the people. Some Shinnecock or native people would carry this knowledge by
modern research, by oral history, or by direct experience through visions or spiritual
So, how do those unfamiliar with the concept catch a ride on the turtle’s back and help to
keep her, and all of us, afloat? For starters, with houseplants in winter, gardening during
the warmer months, prayers and meditations any time, and by not throwing trash out car
windows anyone can nurture the connection.
According to Lorraine Simone, M.S, Ed., aka Deep Arrow Woman, founder of Moonfire