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Sacred Bones

Sacred Bones is an educational program to inspire deep personal and cultural change toward Nature Consciousness – ways of living and a state of consciousness and awareness embodied by Animals, Plants, the Land, and many Indigenous tribal traditions. Sacred Bones is a commitment to stand with the Animals, to protect their lives and homes, and to restore their societies and those of tribal humans through ethical living with Earth. There are two components to the Sacred Bones Program: the seven Sea Turtle and Tribal Monuments and their companion workbooks. Listen to Joe Mitchell (Muscogee) and MaryBeth Timothy (Cherokee) speak about the Five Tribes and Loggerhead Sea Turtle Sacred Bones.

Sea Turtle and Tribal Monuments

In partnership with tribal communities and conservation groups around the world, we are creating seven Monuments to celebrate each of the seven endangered Sea Turtle species and the tribal peoples who have lived with them for thousands of years.

As part of a worldwide effort to save Sea Turtles and in support of Indigenous sovereignty, the seven monuments reflect the deep relationships between Sea Turtles and tribal cultures. The monuments are paired with a learning program- the companion Sacred Bones Workbook (156 pages) which can be used in schools and communities to further their understanding of Nature’s ethics and principles.

The completed Cook Islands Honu Monument, designed and created by Maori artist Ian George, now stands on front of the Ministry of Education, Rarotonga, Cook Islands. The second monument – Loggerhead Sea Turtle and Five Tribes – designed by MaryBeth Timothy (Cherokee) is now in progress.

Cook Islands Honu Monument

sculptor prepares rock

The Cook Islands Honu Monument, a stone sculpture designed and created by Ian George, promotes the protection and restoration of the magnificent Honu (Green Sea Turtle, Chelonia mydas). The creation of the monument in 2015 coincided with the Cook Islands’ 50th Anniversary Independence Day celebrations. Thousands of people from all the islands gathered in Raratonga to participate in the arts, sports, singing, dancing, drumming, and other cultural activities.

Satta Isbakchoba Monument

sea turtle drawing

This monument celebrates Loggerhead Sea Turtles and The Five Tribes (Creek, Choctaw, Cherokee, Chickasaw, Seminole). Designed by Cherokee artist MaryBeth Timothy, Kerulos artist-in-residence, the bronze sculpture will be located in the U.S. Southeast. The monument’s name is the word for Loggerhead Sea Turtle in the language of the Koasati (Coushatta) tribe. MaryBeth describes the sculpture and its meaning in this video.

Sea turtles (honu) are long-lived, migratory marine reptiles exhibiting delayed maturity and iteroparous reproduction (i.e. sequential nests). They are aquatic animals that spend >99% of their lives at sea, surfacing only to breathe, and tied to land for egg-laying. Their navigational skills are remarkable, using geomagnetic cues, and there is good evidence to show that females return to the beach where they were born to lay their own eggs; it may take 40-50 years for a turtle to reach maturity (i.e. first reproduction).

In the Cook Islands

Green turtles are found on Rarotonga’s reefs, but nesting probably no longer occurs. All of the coastal zone is inhabited, much of the coastal ring-road is near the sea traffic – lighting and human presence all act as deterrents for emerging females.

Hotels have been built on most of the sandy beaches; tourism is the nation’s main source of income, so this is unlikely to change. Hawksbill turtles (Eretmochelys imbricata) are seen occasionally on local coral reefs, but these are mostly smaller juveniles. Nesting by hawksbills has not been found anywhere in the Cook Islands; perhaps true for two decades or more. This species is critically-endangered, but nesting may occur in the future, contingent upon the Cook Islands protecting suitable beaches on the remote atolls.


Islanders and Sea Turtles have lived together for hundreds of years. Even before the 13th century, when New Zealand Aotearoa inhabitants first sailed from Rarotonga using ocean-going vaka, Pacific People and Sea Turtles shared the same waters, shores, and stars. Now, however, that peace is gone and honu is under siege and facing extinction.


Many of the factors that undermine sea turtles well-being are not obvious to the casual eye. Plastic and garbage that fill our ocean waters choke the bodies of sea turtles when ingested. Unlike most other countries, the Cook Islanders take great pride in keeping the islands clean; weekly, if not daily, clean-ups take place. Unfortunately, as an oceanic nation, Cook Islanders are continually impacted by marine debris: most of this (>99%) is plastic waste that arrives from the industrialized world far away.

Industrialized Fishing

Industrialized fishing is permitted throughout the Cook Islands EEZ (2 million km2). License fees are the nation’s second largest source of revenue. Sea turtle bycatch (i.e. capture non-target species) is known to have an impact globally, but may be infrequent in these waters. Entangled in fishing lines that lace oceanic migration paths, nesting beaches, sea turtles die invisibly by the thousands.

Climate Change

Most sea turtle nesting nationally occurs on the sparsely-inhabited northern atolls. These are low-lying coralline islands that are at risk of being submerged from rising sea levels associated with global climate change.

Maori dancers

In several cultures the world is seen as being on the back of a honu: the World Turtle or Turtle Island. Artwork such as paintings, carvings, jewelry and handicrafts showing turtles are found on the island of Rarotonga. The Cook Island turtle tatau (tattoo) is perceived as a symbol of the ariki, the chiefly class and can be seen in two early paintings of ariki Te Pou and ariki Makea. Both have symbols of the honu tatau on their knees. This practice is continued today as a symbol of ethnic pride.

From its small beginnings ten years ago, the Vaka Eiva (Canoe Festival) now hosts more than 1000 paddlers. The creation of the Cook Islands Honu Monument in 2015 coincides with the tenth anniversary of the Vaka Eiva. Outside the paddlers themselves, there are many family, friends, and others who will participate in other cultural celebrations including traditional vaka (canoe) carving, tatau artistry, dancing, and art by the Lagoon’s popular Paddle exhibition hosted by The Art Studio gallery. Much admired for their navigation prowess, honu are included in diverse aspects of Island culture.