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Riddle me this…

January 30, 2012

Can you get this one? “I drag my shovel on the trail.” Or, how about, “I broke my bow, shooting at caribou.”

No? The answer to the first one is a beaver and the second is the northern lights!

The other day, I picked up a wonderful little publication from one of my favorite bookstores, Tidal Wave Books in Anchorage, Alaska: “Koyukon Riddles.” The little book is adapted and introduced by Richard Dauenhauer, the husband of the renowned Tlinget poet and linguist, Nora Marks Dauenhauer. Published in 1975 for The Alaska Bilingual Education Center, the riddles were originally collected by one Fr. Julius Jette, S.J. in 1913 (the Koyukon are an Athabascan people that live on the Koyukuk and Yukon Rivers in Northern Alaska). According to Dauenhauer, winter was the time for riddles after the hard work of summer and fall, when “the food supply had been gathered and prepared.” For the Koyukon, specifically, riddles are associated with “the return of light” during the second half of the winter.

Dauenhauer also explains beautifully how riddles relate to the everyday world, when they might appear to be only evocative flights of fancy: “Riddles are like poems. A riddle is an act of imagination–an act of seeing something in terms of something else…riddles turn things upside down and inside out [and] gives us a new or different way of seeing the everyday world.”

What do you see in the world of the Koyukon from these few examples? Here are a few of my favorites–feel free to add your own in the comments!

1. Far away, a fire flaring up.

2. We come upstream in a red canoe.

3. Grease-like, like sun on water, streaking in opposite directions.

4. We go singing in the water


1a. Red Fox tail

2a. Red salmon

3a. Sled runner tracks

4a. Paddle whirls


From → Literature, Poems

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