stone turtle sculpture

Stone turtle sculpture, China, S/N 3_2256. Courtesy The Live Turtle & Tortoise Museum, Singapore. Photographer: Hu Tsun Hao.

Working Group (2020-2026)

Reclaiming Turtles All the Way Down (TAWD): Animal Cosmologies and Paths to Indigenous Sciences


Contact: Lisa Onaga


The origin stories and cultural narratives of diverse peoples around the world are deeply entwined with principles that guide specific ways of knowing and acting in the universe. Among these, various turtle stories of peoples ranging from the Indo-Pacific Worlds to the Indigenous Americas have continued to provide images and information about the structure and order of the world. For some societies, relationships with turtles also form the foundation of knowledge systems that suggest important protocols and values of how to interact with other living beings, inanimate things, and ecosystems. Scientific knowledge of Chelonians (turtles and tortoises) and other animals in fields as wide ranging as geology or conservation science have also benefited from plural knowledge systems that have repeatedly faced erasure. Since the seventeenth century, the expression “turtles all the way down” (TAWD) has gained salience in English language contexts, having been made increasingly distant from the authority of the turtle cosmologies from which they have been drawn. Today, “TAWD” is an idiomatic expression especially used to explain infinite regression. As a flexibly interpreted phrase, it can be used as either a neutral explanation or a dismissal of different knowledge systems.


stone turtle sculpture

Stone turtle sculpture, China, S/N 3_2256. Courtesy The Live Turtle & Tortoise Museum, Singapore. Photographer: Hu Tsun Hao.

Our project collaborators historically examine the normalized imagery of the stacked turtles metaphor by inquiring into the roles of animal cosmologies in diverse cultures and how they have mattered to or for Indigenous knowledge and science. By focusing on multiple cultural contexts where turtle stories and knowledge have had lasting significance across different time periods, our comparative historical approach takes a step toward reclaiming “turtles all the way down.” The fractal stack of tortoises that extends from this description reflects two lines of historical questioning concerning language and material cultures, which together open up interrelated inquiries into anxieties concerning the location of authority about scientific knowledge or wisdom in human societies. "Reclaiming 'Turtles All the Way Down'" pursues research into turtle stories by combining Indigenous studies and histories of science, technology, and medicine to make historical and comparative understandings of turtle stories over time and around the world.

The following questions guide this investigation:

  1. How and why have turtle stories and/or lore had lasting significance for different knowledge communities historically, and relatedly, what tensions generate when different cultural and geographic understandings of worlds connected to the animal are brought into friction?
  2. How are humans' memories reconstructed and aided by the making, use, conservation, or unmaking of various chelonian things, be they artifacts or remains of actual turtles or tortoises, visual representations, or other objects made with their materials? Relatedly, how are those made to align with particular perspectives about history and belonging?

Different methods are used to engage with each of these questions. The first employs text-based analyses and oral histories to examine how multiple turtle and tortoise stories have operated in local languages and how they have also been appropriated into observers’ languages, metaphoric and otherwise. The second combines object analyses with oral history and archival methods in order to study Chelonian materials or Chelonian-inspired artifacts from the Indigenous Americas and Indo-Pacific Worlds comparatively and thus analyze how turtle stories have been materially made and maintained. Digital tools are additionally used to examine artifacts, visual materials, texts, and oral traditions of different sociohistorical contexts. These methods altogether facilitate historical understandings about how various knowledges that connect turtles with worlds translate into material and mundane activities that ultimately guide relationships among different things in the universe.

 “Reclaiming 'TAWD'” is being developed in collaboration with scholars including Kyle Powys Whyte, Melissa NelsonVicente M. Diaz, Leah Lui-Chivizhe, Pratik Chakrabarti, Scott F. Gilbert, Kristina Buhrman, Marissa Petrou, John Mathew, and Clapperton Chakanetsa Mavhunga. Our first monthly meeting took place in August 2020 virtually. Please visit this page for project news and updates.