Indigenous Peoples of Turtle Island

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  Turtle Island: Storytelling Peopling North America:How? North American Culture Areas of Native Americans Maps

The Story of Turtle Island and Ethical Storytelling

The Native Americans of North America have a rich and diverse history and continued presence in our contemporary world. Often Native Americans will say that their ancestors have been here on this land forever and that their presence here is not a mystery but an accepted fact.

North America has been occupied for over 10,000 years by many people often refered to as Indigenous peoples, Aboriginal peoples, Native Americans and Indians. Over the past 10,000 years of time there has been a lengthy body of oral stories and legends to explain the history of each group.

The name Turtle Island harkens back to an ancient Iroquois , Haudenosonee, People of the Longhouse, story that has been told to many Iroquois Native American children and adults. It is the act of storytelling that is highlighted here since this is a major tool of education in a culture with a dominant oral history. 

In oral cultures, storytelling maintains and preserves traditions.  It takes listeners on a journey toward a renewal of life, a common survival theme in Native rituals and ceremonies.  Older generations pass on stories told when they were young.  Thus, storytelling knits a new generation into the fabric of generations gone.  This act serves as a “gentle survival’ tactic-a productive way to fight extinction."1

The storyteller has a responsibility to shape the story for the audience and to convey the spiritual as well as emotional meaning of the story.  Stories become agents of education as well as moments of entertainment based on the audience.  Only in recent times have stories been written down, published and available for a wider audience. 

Many family stories exist still in an oral format whereas certain stories may only be conveyed through certain members of the tribe.  Certain stories may only be told at particular times of the year and in connection with certain places.  Therefore, if one wishes to embark upon Native American ethical storytelling, it is important to consult with the tribal culture coordinators, elders, or Traditions Bearers to guarantee that storytelling is approached in a culturally responsive and respectful manner. 2

Furthermore, sacred stories are considered factual to the tribe of origin. The Western world interprets the world in a linear and chronological fashion whereas Indigenous peoples describe their world before contact in a manner that brings past, present and future together. One might also suggest a circular manner of event interpretation.3

Therefore, what is Turtle Island and why do the Iroquois tell a story with this term in it? This is a creation myth that was “recorded” in 1816 by John Norton, son of  Cherokee and Scottish parents and adopted by the Mohawks. He is also known as Mohawk Chief Teyoninhokarawen.

John Norton

His own personal history is fascinating due to the several leadership positions he attained in his life and participation in the War of 1812. John Norton's journal may be accessed at the following site: Journal of John Norton.  Norton's record of the Sky Woman begins on page 88 of his journal.

 The quote below says something about John Norton and may provide insight as to why he wanted to record the story.

"These traditions, for the most part, have become imperfect and confused from the failures of the memories of some; and perhaps from the invention of others." Journal of John Norton, page 91.

Portrait of Major John Norton as Mohawk Chief Teyoninhokarawen 
by Mather Brown, ca. 1805. Yale Center for British Art

Suggested Lesson Ideas:

Several versions of Sky Woman are available on the Internet. The ones provided here have been researched for their source, preferably from a Native American website.

The first link: Sky Woman is hosted by the History Matters and explains briefly about the recording of the story in 1816. Another version is located at the Canadian Museum of Civilization, and a third version, The Haudenosonee Creation Story also tells a longer version of the story.

  • A question one may ask after reading the stories of Sky Woman: did John Norton have  the appropriate skills or permission from the Mohawk elders to record this story back in 1816? What permissions would he need if he tried to publish a Native American story at this time in the world that had never been written down?

  • Does a comparison of the John Norton original copy and the website versions yield any changes that are of historical significance?

  • The Great Turtle provides much support to the woman and her children.  Explain how the turtle supports all of them.

  • A turtle carries his or her home on its back.  Investigate the anatomy of a turtle and relate the basic anatomy to the overall responsibilities of the turtle in the Native legend.

  • For additional information about storytelling, research this site produced by Kay Olan, Mohawk storyteller. "Let me tell you a story..."

  • Check out the source:
    This source outlines information and case studies on Indigenous Knowledge/Traditions and Intellectual Property
  • 1. Leen, Mary. "An Art of Saying: Joy Harjo's Poetry and the Survival of Storytelling."Bibliography of Native North America. Web. 12 July 2013

    2."American Indian Stories." ASHA Leader (2007): 27.

    3. Leen, Mary. "An Art of Saying: Joy Harjo's Poetry and the Survival of Storytelling."Bibliography of Native North America. Web. 12 July 2013


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    Sea Turtle

    This site was created by Diana T. Mackiewicz at the NEH Summer Institute "Native Americans of New England: A Historical Overview," administered by the Five Colleges, Inc. and held at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, MA, Summer 2013. Last updated August, 2013.