Believe it or not, it is under your feet if you are living in North America and walking on Mother Earth. Many Native American tribes have this believe and have it in their folklore stories. One reason is the continent’s shape. The North American area has the shape of the turtle’s shell with a spiny ridge, the Rocky Mountains. Protruding from the shell are the tail of Mesoamerica; the limbs of Florida, Baja California, Alaska and Quebec-Labrador; and the head pointing toward the North Pole. The continent also has 13 regions that correspond to the 13 plates that are on turtle’s shell.

Many traditional elders say the natural, sacred way to govern ourselves was taught to us by way of the nature of the turtle.

Mayan tribes make mention of their story. In the earliest days, when the Earth was covered with water, the animals tried, one by one, to create land, so they could stop swimming and rest. After all the other animals tried and failed, it was Turtle who—despite suffering some derision from the others, even though they themselves had failed—dove down many, many times to the bottom of the primeval sea, holding her breath far longer than any other creature can and, by bringing up a small mouthful of dirt each time, eventually created this continent.

The Mohawk tribe has a little different story: “In the beginning, all the families of the world lived together on the shell of a turtle (Turtle Island). However, as time went by, they began to argue and even fight with each other. Seeing this, the Creator pulled the shell’s 13 sections apart, separating them by impassable, undrinkable gulfs of salt water to prevent them from continuing to bicker with each other.”

Turtles are mega-talented and warriors of the rainbow, sun, moon, stars, wind, rain, thunder and hurricanes.

Oh, yes, the Mashpee Wampanoag have respected the turtle since the beginning of time. We have the bog turtle, snapper, spotted and others who roam freely all the time. Elders have many stories. I remember them in Grandpa’s barn, down the herring run in the bogs, in our yards and all around. Today, I have a real turtle named Snickers Two.

Our first chairman in the 1970s, Russell M. (Fast Turtle) Peters, was the first to ask for tribal federal recognition. His brother John A. Peters, named Slow Turtle, was the Supreme Medicine Man of the Wampanoag Nation. Our Mashpee Wampanoag seal has the spirit of the turtle.

Look around as you walk and you may see a turtle smiling at you! They like to travel downstreet on Route 130 and upstreet on Route 130 an Great Neck Road North and, oh, in Mashpee Commons. Our ancestors loved the wisdom of the turtles and we still do. Native American people have many more turtle stories that are of value and love to share so perhaps you may understand us a whole lot better.

Joan Tavares Avant, M.Ed., is a member of the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe, Wampanoag Deer Clan mother, and a former director of the Mashpee School District’s Indian Education Program. She can be reached at

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