Living on the Back of a Turtle
The Elementary School of the Oneida Nation of Wisconsin, located about 10 miles west of Green Bay, Wisconsin, is known as the Turtle School. The fact that it is shaped like one was not an architectural accident. The building, constructed in 1994, was designed to look like a turtle. It represents the North American continent to the Oneida people.
The turtle is central in the Oneida creation story, which begins with a woman falling from a world in the sky to a world of water below. Sky Woman, as she is called, was caught by a flock of birds. Meanwhile, many water creatures tried to bring up some of the earth from under the water. The muskrat finally succeeded. The other animals placed the earth on the back of a great turtle, which grew and grew and grew.
The birds gently placed Sky Woman on the great turtle. This origin of the land is the foundation for the name “Turtle Island,” which is the continent of North America.
The Oneida are one of six Iroquois nations, and while their original homelands were in what is now New York State, today there are more than 12,000 Oneida tribal members living in Wisconsin.
The Oneida consist of three clans: the Wolf Clan, the Turtle Clan, and the Bear Clan. The Wolf Clan is responsible for being pathfinders, for providing guidance on this earth. The Turtle Clan is responsible for protecting the environment. The Bear Clan is the caretaker of the Earth’s medicines. The Oneida are matrilineal, and membership in a clan is passed to the children through their mothers.
In the past, the Oneida people believed they did not own the land, but instead were given the responsibility of taking care of it for their descendants. As a matriarchal society, the women were the heads of households and appointed the men who would become the leaders of each clan. All were responsible for making decisions that would ensure that future generations were cared for.
Today, the Oneida Nation is still dedicated to preserving and protecting the environment of the great Turtle Island for future generations. “Our commitment to protect the earth for future generations is evident in so many different aspects–from promoting best agricultural practices with local farmers; to working hard to restore waterways, wetland areas and native flora; to partnering with our neighbors to resist a proposal to store toxic waste in a local landfill,” says Patty Ninham Hoeft, Tribal Secretary for the Oneida Tribe of Indians of Wisconsin.
Meanwhile, the Turtle School is very busy nurturing the next generation, with the Oneida values being blended into the students’ daily lessons, to ensure their commitment to protecting and defending Turtle Island.