Psychiatrists on Turtle Island


Ancient creation stories can still tell us something about our world.

Image provided by Michelle Shephard

Image provided by Michelle Shephard


-Series Editor: H. Steven Moffic, MD

The Ojibwa and many other First Nations individuals refer to North America as Turtle Island.

There are numerous variations of this creation story, and its meaning can be best understood in the original language. Also, when told in Native language, many such stories do not follow the template of European based story-telling temporally or in form.

In the Ojibwe Turtle Island story, there are elements of male and female, with the spiritual creator of the universe, Kitche-Manitou, being assisted in a post-flood recreation of the earth by Geezhigo-Quae (Sky Woman). In this origin story, numerous animals attempt to help Sky Woman find soil within the waters, but none can plunge deeply enough, until a little muskrat dives down, scoops up earth and rises to the surface, perishing in the effort. Geezhigo-Quae is able to breathe life back into the little muskrat. She takes the clump of earth, spreads it onto the back of a giant sea turtle, and Muzzu-Kummik-Quae (Mother Earth), forms again. Sky Woman is given a new name, Nokomis, in honor of her efforts, and she bears the children of Kitche-Manitou, the Anishinabeg—or The Good People—who tell the story to this day.

Within many Native cultures, spirituality is not highlighted with dates on a calendar, but is lived daily, and encompasses being part of a universal relationship with all. There is no distinction between “animate and inanimate.”

Themes of diving and returning anew are common in creation stories, as are themes of sacrifice and rebirth. These stories seem to touch something deep in the human psyche. Carl Jung, MD, Robert Bly, and Joseph Campbell have all written about descent into ourselves in order to reemerge (often through wounds) to a new self. 

With themes of “above and below,” on Earth Day, one cannot ignore the connection between such symbolism and energy sources extracted from the deep vs those harvested from the sky. For a good earth, there must be good soil, good air, good water, and good beings. We look to the little muskrats of the world, the youth, the Greta Thunbergs and Tokata Iron Eyes, as well as elders past, present, and future for their wisdom and guidance.

Dr McLean is Clinical Professor and Chair of Psychiatry and Behavioral Science at the University of North Dakota School of Medicine and Health Sciences. Dr Fox is an Instructor and Program Developer at Turtle Mountain Community College in North Dakota.

To see more on Earth & Psychiatry, please see The Power and Potential of Earth Week and Psychiatry.

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