The Valley of the Great Turtle
Our journey through history begins in the heart of the ancient homelands of the Kanien’kehá:ka, “the people of the place of flint.” We’re sitting on the grass at Kana’tsioharé:ke , “the place of the clean pot,” listening to a Mohawk elder as he recounts the story of creation for a gathering of people. He tells the tale against the backdrop of a steep canyon wall that rises more than 500 feet above the nearby Mohawk River, Tenonanatsieh, “the river flowing through mountains.”
The story he tells is as old as the hills. Somewhere along this river in 1644, another Mohawk storyteller told a similar tale to Dutch colonist Johannes Megapolensis, which he recorded in his Account of the Mohawk Indians:
The other day an old woman came to our house, and told my people that her forefathers had told her “that Tharonhij-Jagon, that is, God, once went out walking with his brother, and a dispute arose between them, and God killed his brother.” I suppose this fable took its rise from Cain and Abel. They have a droll theory of the Creation, for they think that a pregnant woman fell down from heaven, and that a tortouise, (tortoises are plenty and large here, in this country, two, three and four feet long, some with two heads, very mischievous and addicted to biting) took this pregnant woman on its back, because every place was covered with water; and that the woman sat upon the tortoise, groped with her hands in the water, and scraped together some of the earth, whence it finally happened that the earth was raised above the water. They think that there are more worlds than one, and that we came from another world.
The Mohawk Indians are divided into three tribes, which are called Ochkori, Anaware, Oknaho, that is, the Bear, the Tortoise and the Wolf. Of these, the Tortoise is the greatest and most prominent; and they boast that they are the oldest descendents of the woman before mentioned.
It is not surprising that our ancient creation story describes a great turtle rising up from beneath the waters to form the world we know, for this is literally what happened.
For thousands of years, a massive glacier covered much of North America. Eventually it began to melt, leaving a vast body of water over what is now Lake Ontario and the surrounding lands: basically, what would in due time become the homelands of the “Iroquoian” peoples. This body of water drained to the east through what eventually become the Mohawk River, later joining another body of melted glacial ice where we now find Lake Champlain and the Hudson River. As Codman Hislop described it in The Mohawk:
The Mohawk gateway to the west was thrown open when the last ice sheet retreated far enough to the north to allow the impounded waters of Lake Iroquois to spill east across the great plateau at what is now Little Falls, New York. What geologists call the Rome River, a pre-glacial stream, had once flowed west from this high land before it disappeared. With the rush of water to the east across this spillway the pre-glacial valley of the Mohawk was filled with roar and rush and the grinding of ice. The flood poured east, cutting out the farmed, green reaches of today, tearing down not only the rock gate at Little Falls, but another stone barrier at what is called “The Noses,” huge projections which the quiet river now divides a few miles west of the village of Fonda.
In time, the ice sheath receded northward and this ancient Lake Iroquois began to drain through the St. Lawrence River, and the Mohawk River became, in Hislop’s words, “a quieter stream.”
The Noses he referred to are none other than the massive rock prominences known as Anthony’s Nose and Little Nose. Anthony’s Nose is just east of Kana’tsioharé:ke . Little Nose is directly south of it, on the opposite side of the Mohawk River.
It was our modern Mohawk storyteller who first suggested that Anthony’s Nose looked a lot like the nose of a giant turtle. Indeed, if seen from above, or even by looking at a topographical map, one can see that the entire area within that particular oxbow of the Mohawk River, from Palatine Bridge to Fonda, is in the shape of a great turtle. And as it happens, this great turtle was created from a massive flood of water that staggers the imagination.
Archaeologists tell us that in the late 1600’s, the Mohawk turtle clan villages were located to the east of Anthony’s Nose, the bear clan being west of that marker, the wolves several miles further to the west. At an even earlier time, from the 1580’s until the second decade of the 1600’s, the Mohawk villages were located at various places on the turtle’s shell. It is not surprising that the great turtle would figure so prominently in our cosmology, as evidenced by the quote from Megapolensis. Out of his own ignorance, he chuckled at this “droll theory of Creation,” but today we realize that our ancestors actually had a fairly advanced understanding of how their landscape came to be created.
Topographical sketch of "Great Turtle" land formation.
Eventually this “Great Turtle Island” would come to represent not only this particular bluff along the Mohawk River, but probably the vast Adirondack mountain range north of it, as well as the entire continent of North America. The great turtle figures prominently in the creation stories of many tribes, but I know of only one place where you can actually “see” the turtle, and that’s in our ancient homeland.
Some say we shouldn’t take this story so literally, that we should just celebrate its creative imagery. I tried my best to keep that in my mind as I wrote this book, even when a massive tsunami struck southeast Asia, killing hundreds of thousands…and proving for all time that we really do live on the backs of great turtles, and do so at their leisure.