Native American Animals: The Turtle (Keya) Symbolizes Grandmother Earth (Unci Maka)

Apr 13, 2020 | Native Hope

The turtle is a sacred creature among Native American tribes. Each tribe’s cultural view of the turtle/tortoise, is slightly different; however, the deeper meaning remains the same: the turtle represents Unci Maka , Lakota for Grandmother Earth, who teaches us to walk our paths in peace.

The turtle and the tortoise

Untitled design copy 10We are blessed with turtles and tortoises, which hold many similarities but possess distinct differences. Both have long life spans, lay eggs, and are slow-moving. They also both have shells for protection.

Tortoises have saddlebacks and rounded shells. They live solely on land in warmer climates, spending most of their time underground during warmer times of the day. They will lay their eggs in a nest. Also, tortoises have feet with claws for digging with no webbing between their toes. Plants make up their diet. Tortoises live in one area for their entire life—they do not migrate.

On the other hand, turtles have a flat shell and make their homes in oceans or near lakes and rivers. They lay their eggs on land. The feet of a turtle differs from that of a tortoise—their front feet are webbed to help them swim. Turtles eat bugs and plants and migrate with the seasons.

Value of the turtle

To most tribes, the turtle also represents healing, wisdom, spirituality, health, safety, longevity, protection, and fertility. Some Native Americans believe that the turtle contributed to creation because the turtle dove into the primeval waters to retrieve mud to create Mother Earth. Additionally, the shell of the turtle represents protection and perseverance.

Untitled design copy 8For the Navajo—Diné, the turtle’s shell is used to dispense medications—the turtle’s healing properties are so great that no other container is adequate. Others use the shell to craft dance rattles for ceremonial purposes. With 13 patterned squares in the center of its shell, some tribes use the shell as a calendar. The thirteen squares represent the thirteen full moons of the year. The surrounding twenty-eight squares of the shell represent the twenty days of each lunar month.

Lakota mothers make a leather amulet shaped like a keya (Lakota for turtle) for their newborn babies. They place their child’s umbilical cord within and sew them closed for protection. The amulet keeps the child grounded and connected to its mother and unci maka.

Earth on turtle’s back

Turtles are creatures with amazing fortitude, much like the Native Americans of this continent. Through adversity, they survive with resilience. The indigenous of Turtle Island—North America—place the turtle in high esteem because of its connection to Mother Earth. Let us all remember her value and protect her as she has protected us for centuries. 



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