Living Close to the Land: Storytelling Teaches Lessons

Pre-Visit Activity for all ages 


To introduce students to storytelling, Native American cultures, and the relationship of those cultures to the natural world 


Attached story

(Extensions require paper and drawing materials.) 


Oral tradition in Native American cultures has always played a very important role.  Stories were used both as entertainment and teaching tools.  Some of the people that lived in Nevada and Utah were the Gosiute and Western Shoshone.  Stories that have been told over the years are cultural stories, rather than personal.  In fact, most Western Shoshone tales take place in the “mythic past”, when animals spoke and set human customs through their adventures. 

Story telling always involved the audience and could be quite animated and theatrical.  Native peoples would not sit and listen passively to a story, but would say “yes” at appropriate times, answer questions, interrupt if something was forgotten, and of course laugh.  Stories of the people from the Great Basin often taught one how to behave, sometimes by showing the incorrect behavior.  Stories were usually told on winter evenings after all the chores were done.  (Shoshone Tales, Anne Smith) 


  1. Introduce the concept and importance of storytelling for native cultures.  Ask students what role storytelling plays in their lives.  Do their parents and grandparents tell them stories about when they were little?
  2. Inform students you are going to read them a creation story (a story of how the earth was made) from the Onondaga culture of the Northeast Woodlands.  See attached.
  3. After the story help students to better understand it by asking the following questions: 
  • Why does the Chief think his wife’s dream is so important?  Are your dreams important?  What do you do when you remember your dreams? 
  • Why does the Ancient Chief pull up the Great Tree? 
  • In what ways do the animals help the Chief’s wife once she falls through the hole in Skyland?
  • Why does Muskrat succeed in bringing the Earth up when the other animals fail, even though they are stronger and swifter than she is?  What lesson does Muskrat bring to the people who hear this story? 
  • This is one Indian story of creation, of how the Earth was made.  What are some other ways that people believe the Earth was created? 
  • What are the things the Chief’s wife will need to survive on the Earth on Turtle’s back? 
  • Where do these things come from in the story?  Where do all of our survival needs come from? 


  • Draw a picture from the story.  Possible topics are Skyland, the animals in the story, the ancient chief and his wife, the new earth on the turtle’s back.
  • What kinds of things do you need on your earth to survive?  Draw picture of your home and all of its important places:  your room, yard, school, parks, neighborhood.

The Earth on Turtle’s Back

(Onondaga-Northeast Woodlands) 

Before this Earth existed, there was only water.  It stretched as far as one could see, and in that water there were birds and animals swimming around.  Far above, in the clouds, there was a Skyland.  In that Skyland there was a great and beautiful tree.  It had four white roots which stretched to each of the sacred directions, and from its branches all kinds of fruits and flowers grew. 

There was an ancient chief in the Skyland.  His young wife was expecting a child, and one night she dreamed she saw the Great Tree uprooted.  The next morning she told her husband the story. 

He nodded as she finished telling her dream.  “My wife,” he said, “I am sad you had this dream.  It is clearly a dream of great power and, as is our way, when one has such a powerful dream we must do all that we can to make it true.  The Great Tree must be uprooted.” 

Then the Ancient Chief called the young men together and told them they must pull up the tree.  But the roots of the tree were so deep, so strong, they could not budge it.  At last the Ancient Chief himself came to the tree.  He wrapped his arms around it, bent his knees and strained.  At last, with one great effort, he uprooted the tree and placed it on its side.  Where the tree’s roots had gone deep into Skyland there was now a big hole.  The wife of the chief came close and leaned over to look down, grasping the tip of one of the Great Tree’s branches to steady herself.  It seemed as if she saw something down there, far below, glittering like water.  She leaned out further to look and, as she leaned, she lost her balance and fell into the hole.  Her grasp slipped off the tip of the branch, leaving her with only a handful of seeds as she fell, down, down, down, down. 

Far below, in the waters, some of the birds and animals looked up. 

“Someone is falling toward us from the sky,” said one of the birds. 

“We must do something to help her,” said another.  Then two Swans flew up.  They caught the Woman From the Sky between their wide wings.  Slowly, they began to bring her down toward the water, where the birds and animals were watching. 

“She is not like us,” said one of the animals.  “Look, she doesn’t have webbed feet.  I don’t think she can live in the water.” 

“What shall we do, then?” said another of the water animals. 

“I know,” said one of the other birds.  “I have heard there is Earth far below the waters.  If we dive down and bring up Earth, then she will have a place to stand.” 

So the birds and animals decided someone would have to bring up Earth.  One by one they tried. 

The Duck dove down first, some say.  He swam down and down, far beneath the surface, but could not reach the bottom and floated back up.  Then the Beaver tried.  He went even deeper, so deep that it was all dark, but he could not reach the bottom, either.  The loon tried, swimming with his strong wings.  He was gone a long, long time, but he, too, failed to bring up Earth.  Soon it seemed that all had tried and all had failed.  Then a small voice spoke. 

“I will bring up Earth or die trying.” 

They looked to see who it was.  It was the tiny Muskrat.  She dove down and swam and swam.  She was not as strong or as swift as the others, but she was determined.  She went so deep it was all dark, and still she swam deeper.  She went so deep her lungs felt ready to burst, but she swam deeper still.  At last, just as she was becoming unconscious, she reached out one small paw and grasped at the bottom, barely touching it before she floated up, almost dead. 

When the other animals saw her break the surface they thought she had failed.  She couldn’t speak from exhaustion, but then they saw her right paw was held tightly shut. 

“She has the Earth,” they said.  “Now where can we put it?” 

“Place it on my back,” said a deep voice.  It was the Great Turtle, who had come up from the depths. 

They brought the Muskrat over to the Great Turtle and placed her paw against his back.  To this day there are marks at the back of the Turtle’s shell which were made by Muskrat’s paw.  The tiny bit of Earth fell on the back of the Turtle.  Almost immediately, it began to grow larger and larger and larger until it became the whole world. 

Then the two Swans brought the Sky Woman down.  She stepped onto the new Earth and opened her hand, letting the seeds fall onto the bare soil.  From those seeds the trees and the grass sprang up.  Life on Earth had begun. 

From the young wife’s dream to the events that follow, this is a story of sacrifices that bring new life.  The Great Tree is uprooted, yet its seeds become the source of plants on the Earth.  Muskrat tries so hard to reach the bottom of the waters she nearly dies.  Her determination helps her to succeed in bringing up the Earth, where others who are stronger and faster have failed.  The Great Turtle give his shell to hold the Earth and the seeds brought by the Great Chief’s wife bring life to the new Earth.