Native American Symbols – Turtle and Tortoise

The turtle is an old, sacred figure in Native American symbolism as it represents Mother Earth, and after all, where would we be without her?

Is it turtle or tortoise? See the section at the end of this article to learn the difference. I’m going to use the word turtle to represent both.

To each tribe, the turtle might depict something slightly different but with a recurring theme of creation, protection, longevity.

Carnelian Turtle Totem on Apache Dreamcatcher by Cynthia Whitehawk

According to the Woodland tribes (those in the New England and Great Lakes areas), the turtle dove into the primeval waters to retrieve mud to make the earth. In Iroquois lore, the turtle is a part of the creation myth.

Iroquois Creation Myth

What is a Woodland Tribe? There are many – you might recognize some of the tribal names: Iroquois, Mohawk, Sac, Fox, Mohegan – For a complete listing of the Northeast Woodland Tribes.

The turtle’s hard shell represents perseverance and protection. It has been and can be used as a calendar. The 13 large patterned squares in the center of the shell represent the 13 full moons of the year. The 28 smaller squares around the perimeter of the shell represent the 28 days of each lunar month.

Zuni Turtle Fetish by Adrian Cachini

To the Lakota, the turtle (ke-ya) spirit brings health and longevity. In the past, a beaded turtle was put on the umbilicus or the crib of new born girls for protection and a long life.

Lakota Turtle Spirit by Alan Monroe

Lakota Turtle Dreamcatcher by Tony Monroe

To the Southwest Native American peoples (Navajo, Zuni, Hopi, Santo Domingo Pueblo and others), the turtle represents precious water and is revered in that way. Turtles are popular fetish figures and especially in the southwest where water is a true gift.

Pipestone Turtle Fetish by Daphne Neha, Zuni

In certain Navajo ceremonies, medicines must be dispensed from a turtle shell or an abalone shell – no other container will suffice.


Sterling Silver and Gold Turtle Pendant by Tommy Singer, Navajo

In Zuni legend, turtles bring fertility and longevity. Medicine bags with turtles associated with them ask similar longevity for their owners and are considered by some to have the ability to defy death.

Apache Turtle Medicine Bag by Cynthia Whitehawk

Tortoise shell was used for inlay but has been illegal in the U.S. since 1973.

Turtle shells have also been used in the formation of dance rattles.

Turtle or Tortoise

What is the difference between turtle and tortoise? Are they synonymous?

They are similar but not the same. Both are egg laying reptiles with hard shells and scaly skin. They are slow moving so rely on their shell as protection – they can retract their head and legs into their shell to various degrees. Both are cold blooded so require external sources to warm themselves and shade to cool themselves.

A turtle lives in the water (oceans, lakes, rivers) primarily so has webbed front feet and streamlined legs for swimming. The only time a turtle comes on land is to lay eggs. Once hatched, baby turtles are on their own. A turtle has a flat shell. Turtles eat plants and bugs. They tend to migrate in the ocean and other waters.


Mother Earth Turtle Rattle by Cynthia Whitehawk, Apache

A tortoise lives on the land primarily so has feet with long claws for digging and no webbing between the toes. Tortoise legs are more like short, strong stumps, good for dessert walking. A tortoise has a rounded or domed shell and since they are usually found in hot climates, they stay underground during the heat of the day. The tortoise is herbivorous, preferring succulents. Tortoise eggs are laid in a nest and when they hatch, the baby turtles move to the mother’s burrow. Tortoises tend to say in one area for life.

Russell Shack, Zuni

Both turtles and tortoises have very long life spans in comparison to humans, some tortoises living as long as 150 years.


26 thoughts on “Native American Symbols – Turtle and Tortoise

  1. Now I know more about Turtle, my favorite animal image.

    As you probably know, turtle eggs are sought after by many Mexicans for food, despite regulations against eating or possessing their eggs. We have taken part in baby turtle releases on near-by beaches. It is quite a sight to see all those little ones, paddling furiously to get beyond the breaking waves.


      • I had a turtle cross my path today (knew it was a wonderful sign) Live in remote areas where food and water are scarce, believe me as much as it sounds unapetizing: One has to survive. You would eat an egg if you didn’t have the life of luxury. To All Our Relations!!!!.

  2. I recently acquired a turtle in Asia.

    I am a Teacher there, and in my own country it is illegal to have a turtle; I think. They were never in aquariums in Australia as they are here at least.

    I purchased my Turtle for a sum of 8 $ Australian, and he has been an awesome companion. I chose the lonely guy in a tank at an aquarium. They always look at you when you speak. Well, he does at least…

    Sometimes it even freaks me out a bit: hahaha.

    My private students love him, and they are best in their grade, by the way.

    A turtle is an awesome companion if you seek a pet. But you have to clean his tank water regularly, I use mountain water. He seems happiest in this. Especially playing in the morning sunlight.

    Love to all, and my most trusted companion, teaching ways forgotten.

  3. I would also like to add that… The Turlte symbol is of great signifcance to many cultures around the world. And only if you care for one will you realise, why.

    My turlte keeps me centred, in times of trouble. I just have a chat. He knows I am not go’nna eat him and he knows that I am human.

    Just thought I would add that.

    If you have a Tutrule look after the little fella’. They truly serve you, even if eventually.

    P.S. Sorry for grammar before but it is the internet….

    • Thank you for the personal comments.
      I recently started wearing a medicine bag with two turtles totems on it and I find myself rubbing them at various times of the day, immediately becoming calmer. It is an unconscious act but I noticed one day that I was doing it. So although I have never had a live turtle, I feel nurtured and calmed by the turtle spirit. Thanks again !

  4. Pingback: 2010 Review by WordPress « Native American Jewelry Tips

  5. OK, this is odd. Today is Oct 20th, 2011. I looked up the meaning of the turtle because I saw a huge cloud outside my window today in the shape of a turtle. It was obvious to me what is was. I didn’t have to try and think of what it was-it was a turtle! I guess despite the basic definitions I will still have to discover what it means in my life…

      • Thank you. I find it very ‘coincidental’ that I would stumble upon this site exactly one year after the original post was made, a fact I would have missed except that WordPress mentioned in Jan of this year that it was the most popular post in all of 2010. Makes me wonder about the turtle cloud all the more.

  6. We have five tortoises, three of them the offspring of my oldest rescue some 55 years ago, and the female rescue about 30 years ago. We really love them. They are a living reminder to take care of the earth.

  7. i know sweat hut are meant to represent the shape of the turtle, Ive eve heard that some tribes belived the earth was either in the shape of or an actual living thriving ancient “turtle”….. I was out arrowhead hunting and ran across am OLD dried out turtle shell…. It seemed TOO perfect to leave there, So of course I hiked this fragile turtle shell back home….For some reason its been ON MY MIND….so Ive started some research on turtle rattles and realized that is what I want to make out of this “special” turtle……..cant wait till im finished……REALLY WISH I KNEW HOW TO STITCH THE RATTLE HANDLE LIKE IN PEYOTE STITCH STYLE…..OMG…I WISH SOMEONE COULD TEACH ME HOW TO STITCH LIKE THE NATIVES…..AMAZING

    • It is bug medicine to have a turtle shell or to feel as of you are aligned with the turtle. quite possibly why you were drawn to take it rather than leave it lay. if you have no connection you must take it back to where you found it. It represents your life journey and the length and strength you have in your heart. The turtle is the mother of all that is the earth and it evokes and represents strength. If you are a turtle, you will be fertile and many strong things grow from and because of you. You must protect the earth for she is your offspring.

  8. Pingback: Turtle Reflections | A Journey with Art, Nature & Spirit

  9. Not sure why I just suddenly clicked on this. But now for some reason I want a turtle medicine bag, though I’m not sure what I would do with an extra-long life per se. Maybe I just need to feel more protected right now. My mother always gave me toy turtles instead of teddy bears or dolls as a child, though—I had several of them.

    • You have been given the turtles soul from your mother. Only a turtle may pass this on, so your mother was or is also a turtle. Strong, fertile and very filled with wisdom.

  10. Also, is there any additional symbolism to the turtle fetishes with little turquoise spots on them? I seem particularly drawn to those ones.

  11. I found a large female red eared slider in the high desert found in the school yard. So I brought her home which she lives our backyard for now. She laid a clutch over the full moon~! I am wondering what turtle magic would be~?

  12. Attended the ”Bears Ears Rally at SLC Capitol today (12/2/17) and was offered a green patch with turtle symbol, the carapace covered with a series of six figures holding hands w/ six other figures in between. There was no identification of the group responsible, although there were two young ladies with a banner announcing the group. Can you locate them for me? I would like to offer a free service to reproduce and embroider the logo.
    Pam Hanrahan

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