In the traditions of many of the indiginous peoples of the North Atlantic region of the U.S. and Canada, North America is referred to as Turtle Island. There are several versions of the creation story that describe how Turtle Island came to be, and while the details vary, the core elements are similar.
In the central version of the story, the Creator placed people on the Earth and, disappointed by a prolonged period of human infighting, sent a great flood to purify the Earth. In one variation, Sky Woman, the progenitor of humankind, fell from the sky where she lived and landed on the back of a great turtle. With no shore in sight, she sought the help of the animals to restore the land.
“Gladly, all the animals tried to serve the Spirit Woman. The beaver was the first to plunge into the depths. He soon surfaced out of breath and without the precious soil. The fisher tried, but he too failed. The marten went down, came up empty handed, reporting the water was too deep. The loon tried, and although he remained out of sight for a long time, he too emerged, gasping for air. He said that it was too dark. All tried to fulfill the Spirit Woman’s request. All failed. All were ashamed.
Finally, the least of the water creatures, the muskrat, volunteered to dive. At this announcement the other water creatures laughed in scorn, because they doubted this little creature’s strength and endurance. Had not they, who were strong and able, been unable to grasp the soil from the bottom of the sea? How could he, the muskrat, the most humble among them, succeed when they could not?
Nevertheless, the little muskrat volunteered to dive. Undaunted, he disappeared into the waves. The onlookers smiled. They waited for the muskrat to emerge as empty handed as they had done. Time passed. Smiles turned to worried frowns. The small hope that each had nurtured for the success of the muskrat turned into despair. When the waiting creatures had given up, the muskrat floated to the surface more dead than alive, but he clutched in his paws a small morsel of soil. Where the great had failed, the small succeeded.”
The effort to rebuild the world took the muskrat’s life, but the brave little creature didn’t die in vain. Sky Woman placed the soil on the turtle’s back, establishing new land on what became known as Turtle Island.
For those to whom the issue of climate change feels like an overwhelming challenge, there’s encouragement in this story. It wasn’t the ‘great’ who succeeded in restoring the Earth: it was the ‘small.’ Right action among governments, industry and corporations is vital to successfully addressing the threat of climate change. That said, each of us, as individuals, has it in our power in every moment to honor the example of the muskrat by making small but ultimately meaningful contributions to restoring the environmental health of our planet.
The above story excerpt is from the book, ‘Ojibway Heritage’, by Basil H. Johnston, copyright 1976 by McClelland & Stewart. Johnston (1929-2015) was an Ojibway author, linguist, and teacher, who wrote widely about indiginous traditions, language and contemporary culture.