Creation Myth: Turtle Island

The Seneca creation myth is an important story to know when you’re gaining an understanding of who the Seneca were. While a story about a figure, named Sky Woman, falling towards the earth’s oceans, may not seem to be relevant, this story actually helps narrate how the Seneca understood their world. This story locates the Seneca in physical space, because the overwhelming presence of water in the story reflects the fact that the Seneca had territory on the shores of Lake Ontario (which is big enough that you can’t see the other side like an ocean) and they also had territory along the Genesee river. It then makes sense that water holds such an important role in their creation myth.

By Iroquois mythology, the earth was the thought of the Indian Ruler of a great island which floats in space. In all the Iroquois” myths, the natural and the supernatural are so closely blended that they seem of one realm. Yet in the story of the creation,the Ruler bestowed universal authority upon the two Spirits, Good and Evil, who remain on the earth always.

The Ruler, the Great Creative Being, is known by various names, Sho-gwa-yah-dih-sat-oh (He Who Created Us), Ha-wen- ni-yu (He Who Governs), Hah-ni-go-e-yoo (Good Mind), Great Spirit and Tha-nio-do-oh or To-no-do-oo, the latter being generally adopted by the Iroquois.

This mythical island of the Iroquois is a place of eternal peace. In its abundance there are no burdens to weary; in its fruitfulness all needs are endlessly provided. To its perpetual calm death never comes, and to its tranquillity, no desire, no sorrow nor pain.

In the far away days of this floating island there grew one stately tree that branched beyond the range of vision. Perpetually laden with fruit and blossoms, the air was fragrant with its per- fume, and the people gathered to its shade where councils were held.

One day the Great Ruler said to his people: ” We will make a new place where another people may grow. Under our council tree is a great cloud sea which calls for our help. It is lonesome. It knows no rest and calls for light. We will talk to it. The roots of our council tree point to it and will show the way.”

Having commanded that the tree be uprooted, the Great Ruler peered into the depths where the roots had guided, and summoning Ata-en-sic, who was with child, bade her look down. Ata-en-sic saw nothing, but the Great Ruler knew that the sea voice was calling, and bidding her carry its life, wrapped around her a great ray of light’ and sent her down to the cloud sea.

Dazzled by the descending light enveloping Ata-en-sic, there was great consternation among the animals and birds inhabiting the cloud sea, and they counseled in alarm.
“If it falls it may destroy us,” they cried.
“Where can it rest?” asked the Duck.
“Only the oeh-da (earth) can hold it,” said the Beaver, “the oeh-da which lies at the bottom of our waters, and I will bring it.” The Beaver went down but never returned. Then the Duck ven- tured, but soon its dead body floated to the surface.

Many of the divers had tried and failed when the Muskrat, knowing the way, volunteered to obtain it and soon returned bearing a small portion in his paw. “But it is heavy,” said he, “and will grow fast. Who will bear it?”

The Turtle was willing, and the oeh-da was placed on his hard shell.

Having received a resting place for the light, the water birds, guided by its glow, new upward, and receiving the woman on their widespread wings, bore her down to the Turtle’s back.

And Hah-nu-nah, the Turtle, became the Earth Bearer. When he stirs, the seas rise in great waves, and when restless and violent, earthquakes yawn and devour. 

The belief that the earth is supported by a gigantic turtle is one that is shared by many races. In the ancient myths of the Hindoos, for example, the earth is described as resting on the back of four elephants which stand upon the back of an enormous turtle. In Iroquoian ceremonies the turtle symbol plays an important part.

The Seneca Nation of Indians is currently composed of three territories: Allegany Indian Territories, Cattaraugus Indian Territories, and Oil Spring Indian Territories. Historically know as “Keeper of the Western Door,” they are the largest of the six Haudenosaunee nations.

Within the Seneca Nation there exists eight clans: Deer, Hawk, Heron, Snipe, Turtle, Beaver, Wolf, and Bear. Clans are groups of families that share a common female ancestry which are named after animals that provided special assistance to the Seneca. Those within clans were considered to be relatives, as a result marriage within clans wasn’t allowed. To this day, clans are incredibly important to the Senecas.

For more information, please visit the official Seneca Nation of Indians website & The Ganondagan State Historic Site website

To better understand Seneca and Haudenosaunee culture, it is important to be aware of the unique systems they use compared to Western ideas.

Cyclical time is an important time system that is peculiar and distinctly different from Western’s linear time. Cyclical time, just as it sounds works in cycles. When viewing the world: nature, natural/scientific laws, it’s easy to see why cyclical time exists and makes sense. Within a year there exists four seasons, these seasons repeat and have done so continuously. Even the earth itself rotates and orbits the sun in a cyclical manner. Humans are not exempt from the cyclical nature of the natural world, as it is believed through a cyclical perspective that stories repeat themselves and will continue to do so for eternity. They may not exist the same way or by the same telling, but humans are all part of this great story that continues throughout time. Whatever is experienced in this exact moment as You, the reader, read this sentence every thought, action and word was created from both your personal and the general past and will continue to create the future.

The Haudenosaunee people utilized a Gift Society or Gift Economy, which is a system similar to capitalism but without the unnecessary competition. In gift societies, there is no need for financial insecurity because everyone within the community helps one another out through gifting. The act of gifting in itself becomes a form of monetary capitalism (if still maintaining a western capitalistic perspective), as it allows one to be more prominent and obtain a great reputation among community members. In a society where the goal is to become the best society possible and not individual progression alone, there isn’t an unquenchable desire for want because every individual’s plate has plenty.

“In this political context, for leaders as for all Iroquois, economic exchanges generally took the form of gift giving rather than buying and selling. Reciprocal exchanges of presents sealed relationships” (Richter 22)

Below is an educational short film about economic systems, with attention to both capitalism and gift economies.

The Haudenosaunee nations’ family trees and political systems are very much different from Western society’s understanding of social systems. For starters, Western society uses a patrilinear system, hence the patriarchy. In contrast, Haudenosaunee society works with a matrilinear system that results in more of a matriarchy. As a result, there are much more distinct gender roles within the community, with women possessing most of the community based roles, and men fulfilling mainly hunting, and acting as warriors. While men were the only ones eligible to participate as sachems, political leaders, it was the clan mothers who had the power to appoint and remove sachems from their duties. The Iroquois Confederacy used an oligarchy system, but in actuality it is much more similar to democracy as each nation needed to come to a consensus (there is no such thing as majority rules in Haudenosaunee political systems) and their respective sachem would present the decision to the other sachems at a meeting and from those, come to a conclusion. Different from current political systems, the Haudenosaunee government did not exist continuously, those holding positions maintained their own duties to the community and put on their political hats only when needed.

One interesting artifact that we found through our research was a false face mask.

False Face Mask. 1970-1984. Artstor,

The False Face Society is a society of healers who don false face masks, traveling to the homes of the sick who request the False Face Ceremony. The main reason behind the false face masks’ appearances is because the intention of the mask is to scare off whatever evil spirit or energy is causing such ailments to the individual. The mask is carved from wood and uses horse hair. After an individual receives the ceremony, they are now inducted into the False Face Society for life.

Many Haudenosaunee people do not regard false face masks as “artifacts” which I very much agree with. The false face masks are not merely objects, but are apart of the Haudenosaunee religion and serve to represent a spirit. Additionally, the Haudenosaunee people are not an extinct people, there is no such thing as “the vanishing Indian,” their culture and history is very real, important and very much alive for them. For them to call their own culture not an artifact is something museums and individuals must respect, only gifts from the tribes should be accepted for museums.

Now, where is the Genesee valley, and why did the Senecas settle there?