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Turtle Effigy Historical Site


It was on this day, July 30, 1992 near Golden Valley that the State Historical Society of North Dakota acquired a rare collection of 95 stones. Taken by themselves, these stones were nothing special; similar to any number of rocks found throughout the state. However, left where they were found and undisturbed they formed the shape of a large turtle; twenty-one feet from head to tail and eleven and a half feet wide.

This centuries old turtle effigy found in Mercer Country is one of many that have been discovered throughout the Upper Plains; including those found in Alberta, Manitoba, Saskatchewan, North Dakota and South Dakota. The turtle, among other animals, held a special importance in the religious beliefs and hunting ceremonies of many tribes on the Northern Plains and effigies in their honor were believed to contain powers from the gods. Although the age of these sites can be dated to within a few hundred years, their tribal connections are not so easily ascertained. It is possible the numerous effigies were created by many different tribes over many centuries.

Little is known about the origin of the turtle effigy near Golden Valley; however its religious significance for the Mandan and Hidatsa of the nineteenth century was explained by tribal member, Crows Heart. Recounting the details to anthropologist Alfred Bowers, Crows Heart explained that his fellow tribesmen would make offerings of knives, pieces of hides, or dried meat to the turtle when asking for rain or when requesting good luck such as living to an old age.

The gods of the turtle were also credited with power over the weather. Crows Heart recounted a hunting expedition in the 1860’s where the fog became so thick that his hunting party lost its way. In hopes of clearing away the dense fog, one of the party’s leaders, Clam Necklace, carved the outline of a turtle into the ground in front of him and prayed for a clearing in the weather. Crows Heart stated that “it was not long afterwards…that the fog cleared away from where the turtle lay. Then it cleared out in a circle around the turtle, growing larger and larger, until the fog entirely disappeared.”

There were once many animal effigies throughout the Northern Plains, however due to carelessness or the ravages of time, many have been lost. With careful stewardship these religious monuments can be preserved, thereby retaining an important aspect of North Dakota history.

Written by Lane Sunwall


Lifelong Learning Project, "A Turtle Effigy", University of Montana-Missoula http://www.trailtribes.org/kniferiver/all-my-relations.htm#turtle (accessed July 3, 2008).

Snortland, J. Signe, ed. A Traveler's Companion to North Dakota State Historic Sites. Bismarck, ND: State Historical Society of North Dakota, 1996.

"State Historical Society of North Dakota Strategic Long-Range Plan", State Historical Society of North Dakota http://www.nd.gov/hist/LRPlan.htm (accessed July 3, 2008).