Below is an origin story from the oral tradition of the Potawatomi Nation (and others throughout the Great Lakes region), as told by citizen and botanist Robin Wall Kimmerer in her lovely book, Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Wisdom of Plants.
Reading it, I can't help but wonder how different our society might be today, if we were all raised with an origin story that hinges on gratitude and interdependence -- if we all knew, in our bones, the sacred responsibility that flows between humans and earth.
In winter, when the green earth lies resting beneath a blanket of snow, this is the time for storytelling. The storytellers begin by calling upon those who came before who passed the stories down to us, for we are only messengers.
In the beginning, there was the Skyworld.
She fell like a maple seed, pirouetting on an autumn breeze. A column of light streamed from a hole in the Skyworld, marking her path where only darkness had been before. It took her a long time to fall.
In fear, or maybe hope, she clutched a bundle tightly in her hand.
Hurtling downward, she saw only dark water below. But in that emptiness there were many eyes gazing up at the sudden shaft of light. They saw there a small object, a mere dust mote in the beam. As it grew closer, they could see that it was a woman, arms outstretched, long black hair billowing behind as she spiraled toward them.
The geese nodded at one another and rose together from the water in a wave of goose music. She felt the beat of their wings as they flew beneath to break her fall. Far from the only home she'd ever known, she caught her breath at the warm embrace of soft feathers as they gently carried her downward.
And so it began.
The geese could not hold the woman above the water for much longer, so they called a council to decide what to do. Resting on their wings, she saw them all gather; loons, otters, swans, beavers, fish of all kinds. A great turtle floated in their midst and offered his back for her to rest upon. Gratefully, she stepped from the goose wings onto the dome of his shell. The others understood that she needed land for her home and discussed how they might serve her need.
The deep divers among them had heard of mud at the bottom of the water, and agreed to go find some.
Loon dove first, but the distance was too far and after a long while he surfaced with nothing to show for his efforts. One by one, the other animals offered to help -- Otter, Beaver, Sturgeon -- but the depth, the darkness, and the pressures were too great for even the strongest of swimmers. They returned gasping for air with their heads ringing.
Some did not return at all.
Soon only little Muskrat was left, the weakest diver of all. He volunteered to go while the others looked on doubtfully. His small legs flailed as he worked his way downward and he was gone a very long time.
They waited and waited for him to return, fearing the worst for their relative, and before long, a stream of bubbles rose with the small, limp body of the muskrat.
He had given his life to aid this helpless human. But then the others noticed that his paw was tightly clenched and, when they opened it, there was a small handful of mud. Turtle said, "here, put it on my back and I will hold it."
Skywoman bent and spread the mud with her hands across the shell of the turtle.
Moved by the extraordinary gifts of the animals, she sang in thanksgiving and then began to dance, her feet caressing the earth. The land grew and grew as she danced her thanks, from the dab of mud on Turtle's back until the whole world was made. Not by Skywoman alone, but from the alchemy of all the animals' gifts coupled with her deep gratitude. Together they formed what we know today as Turtle Island, our home.
Like any good guest, Skywoman had not come empty-handed.
The bundle was still clutched in her hand.
When she toppled from the hole in the Skyworld she had reached out to grab onto the Tree of Life that grew there. In her grasp were branches -- fruits and seed and all kinds of plants. These she scattered onto the new ground and carefully tended each one until the world turned from brown to green. Sunlight streamed through the hole from the Skyworld, allowing the seeds to flourish. Wild grasses, flowers, trees, and medicines spread everywhere. And now that the animals, too, had plenty to eat, many came to live with her on Turtle Island too.