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When folks riddle, all things are people to them." So explains Chief Henry-an elder of the Koyukon tribe of central Alaska - revealing one of the most important tricks for solving American Indian riddles.
In other words, the riddle itself may seem to talk about a person. But the answer is actually a thing or an animal.
This is true of many of the riddles known to Chief Henry's tribe and of countless riddles told by Native people in other parts of North, South, and Central America. As it happens, half the riddles in this book are "people" riddles that are really about things or animals.
Among the Alaskan Koyukon, the "folks," or villagers, that Chief Henry had in mind used to get together during the late winter and use riddles to pass the time. It was even said that this helped to make the long Alaskan nights grow shorter. If someone came up with an answer that made sense, though it was not the answer the riddler was thinking of, the riddler would say, "baku," meaning very good," or "almost right."
This must have been welcome encouragement, because some Indian riddles, in spite of tricks for solving them, can be difficult. In fact, there are reports of riddling sessions that have gone on for hours or even days, stuck on a single riddle.
Hard ones are included in this book. Yet many are not impossible to guess, and some are surprisingly easy.
As an experiment, I recently tried out a few of these riddles on two kinds of audiences. First, on groups of adults gathered at the University of Oklahoma and at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. Second, on groups of fourthgraders and sixth graders at a public school in upstate New York.
The adults did fairly well. But the grade-school audiences did even better, showing more persistence and more creativity. Here are some of the younger groups' answers to the old Maya riddle I am doing it, and you are doing it. Can you guess what it is?"
Each of these answers deserves an appreciative "haku." And the last, "breathing," is the Native answer.
Here is a harder one: "What is it that never gets tired of motioning people to come over?" The grade-schoolers offered these guesses
missionaries who came to the IndiansAgain, each answer deserves a "haku" (especially the last, which shows that the guesser knew something about Indian
history), However, this is an example of a "people" riddle that is not actuafly about people. The Native answer is " the earflaps of the tepee."
(I have now given away two of the riddles in this book. But in fact, the ability to remember answers to riddles that one has heard before is another important it trick" in riddling. Remembering is not cheating.)
As I have mentioned, the younger audiences in my experiment were quicker with answers. Perhaps equally important, they were less willing to see the humor in Indian riddles. By contrast, the museum and university audiences found some of the answers amusing and filled the room with laughter when they heard them.
Of the adults who attempted to give their own answers, most made it obvious that they considered riddling a game. This was less clear with the grade-schoolers, who were quite serious, never laughing out loud.
But attitudes are correct, and both are present in Indian tradition.
In the old days, some kinds of riddles were used in life-or-death situations or as part of an important ritual. There was nothing amusing about them. In other cases, as with the Koyukon of Alaska, riddles were frankly a pastime, a form of entertainment; this was equally true among the Penobscot of Alaine, where village "riddlemen" would stop people on the road and quiz them. In still other cases, riddling was part ritual and part pastime, to be taken seriously but also to be enjoyed.
A look at some of the different riddling situations win show the variety and richness of this Native American tradition.
Out of either respect or fear, hunters used to avoid calling game animals by their actual names. For example, in many Canadian tribes a black bear or a grizzly bear would be called "Grandfather," "Friend," "Black Food," "Short Tail," or "Supernatural One." In extreme cases, the manner of speaking could take the form of a riddle.Among the Sirionó a tribe of Bolivia, a woman meeting her husband, who had just come back from hunting, might say to him, "Did you kill nothing?"