“The East gate of Turtle Island, where the Sun and the Water touch the Earth at once.” ~ Tiokasin Ghosthorse, host and executive producer 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 Shinnecock people.”
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 experiences.”
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 Meeting House and the Women’s Way Mystery School in Southampton: “I have heard it from my Turtle Island teachers and have passed these words on to my students, if you have relatives buried here in Turtle Island then you are a Turtle Islander. All the inhabitants of Turtle Island, especially here on Long Island where the environment is so alive and obviously fragile, are entrusted with the charge to be the Keepers of the Earth.
“Whether we are fishermen, artists, farmers, developers, retailers, service or health care providers, our focus is united in the name of Turtle Island. Without her we have nothing to sell or buy, or promote, or eat or expound. What we do to Turtle Island, we do to our selves and to those who follow us. To walk gently upon her is to live in beauty and gratitude and this is the wise and courageous thing to do.”
Walt Whitman helped to revive one of the American Indian names for Long Island with his poem “Starting from Paumanok” (also spelled, Paumanauke), which begins: Starting from fish-shape Paumanok where I was born . . .
Whether fish or turtle, the point is: we are surrounded by water! Scientifically speaking, water makes for about 70% of the total surface area of the planet, and the human body is 50 to 70% water — we are all little islands, connected to Long Island, connected to Turtle Island.
Paumanok means “land of tribute” because smaller tribes paid bigger tribes a tribute or tax of shells, according to Evan T. Pritchard’s book, Native New Yorkers: The Legacy of the Algonquin Peoples of New York. According to Harriet Starleaf Gumbs, the Shinnecock ancestors called Long Island, Sea-Wan-Hak-Hee (sometimes spelled, Sewanhacky), meaning “Shell Heaven or Place.” This writer prefers that name because it honors the seashells, and not some financial purpose that they were used for.
Along with having many lovely beaches and bays, Suffolk County is the top agricultural county in New York State. As sure as the sunlight sparkling on the water whose timeless metronome of motion and sound touches the earth, both land and ocean provide the many gifts that Mother Earth nurtures us with.
In these fast-changing times, as human beings we have a responsibility to take care of the land, as well as the water and air around us. There is much work to do together on Long Island, a vital section of the “East gate” of Turtle Island.
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