October 13, 2016

Raphael, a tagged eastern box turtle Raphael, a tagged eastern box turtle

Livvy Jones
 4th Year Veterinary Student Extern
Institute for Conservation Medicine

You may have heard about the St. Louis Box Turtle Project, an ongoing study by the Zoo’s Institute for Conservation Medicine and collaborators of box turtles living in Forest Park and Tyson Research Center. But did you know box turtles were important to the people of Missouri and across the United States long before St. Louis was even a city? 

Creation legend art by Tom-Two Arrows (Onondaga tribe). Creation legend art by Tom-Two Arrows (Onondaga tribe).

Turtles are very sacred to native people and appear frequently in tribal mythology and legends.  Several tribes have a creation story in which turtles play a vital role. In the stories, long ago Earth had no land; only water. The spirits lived in the sky on an island above the Earth. In the center of the island was a tree that was the source of all the light. One day the great tree was uprooted, leaving a large hole in the sky. Sky Woman was curious about the hole and wanted to peer through it. Unfortunately, she stared a little too close to the edge and tumbled through it!

All the aquatic animals down below watched helplessly as Sky Woman plummeted towards the water Earth. They desperately tried to think of a way to help her so she would not drown. Someone had an idea, “There must be soil far below the waters, if we could dive down and bring some up perhaps we could save Sky Woman from drowning!”  Otter, beaver, and loon all tried to dive down and bring up some soil; however, all failed. Finally, little muskrat dove down the deepest, all the way to the ocean floor. She grabbed a handful of mud and frantically swam back to the surface only to realize she had nowhere to put it.

Gourd dance rattle, Omaha tribe Gourd dance rattle, Omaha tribe

Turtle piped up “Put it on my back, I will hold up the land and the Sky Woman.”  Sky Woman was very thankful to the muskrat and the turtle and created all the plants and land creatures on the back of Turtle. And so goes the story of how North America was created!

Southeastern turtle shell rattles worn on the legs while dancing Southeastern turtle shell rattles worn on the legs while dancing

Box turtles have been found in North American archaeological sites as far back as the Archaic period 8,000-1,000 BC. Several Native American tribes used box turtles as an infrequent food item (side note, box turtle meat may be poisonous and it should not be eaten!), but also as a ceremonial item for seasonal celebrations or dances. The practice continues to this day as some modern-day tribes, like the Chickasaw, Choctaw, Cherokee, Shawnee, Muscogee, and Seminole, use box turtle shells as rattles in a dance called the Stomp Dance. Women and girls wear shackles on their legs made of several small turtle shells tied together and filled with pebbles. Fortunately for the turtles, tin cans have replaced shells on many modern rattles! 

Box turtles have been significant to the people of North America for thousands of years and continue to be important sentinels of their environments today. You can help native box turtles you come across on roads cross safely by placing them off the road in the direction they were heading and leaving them in the wild for future generations to enjoy!