Sukdu Dena’ina and Native American Heritage month

This week, we are putting the finishing touches on a beautiful illustrated children’s picture book about Chulyen (raven), retold by Barbara J. Atwater and Ethan J. Atwater of Alaska. In honor of Native American Heritage month, we thought we’d share a sneak preview.

Our great uncle Walter Johnson who told us many stories, including this one. Whenever he told us a story he would say, ‘Now you go and tell this story in your own way.’ We have taken this both as permission and as a directive.

In How Raven Got His Crooked Nose: An Alaskan Dena’ina Fable (available April 2018), Chulyen the trickster raven loses his nose in an embarrassing incident, but he vows to get it back. With the help of magic powers, Chulyen devises a clever plan to retrieve his missing nose and learns an important lesson along the way. Part picture book, part graphic novel, this story is a modern and authentic retelling of a traditional Alaskan Dena’ina fable.

To complement the text, artist Mindy Dwyer brings the story to life with her magical style and palette, weaving together Chulyen’s dream scenes in graphic novel style, with the story illustrated in traditional picture book style.

From the authors about the Dena’ina people:

The Dena’ina are an Athabascan language Indian people that live to this day in the southern part of Alaska, mostly around Cook Inlet. They are the only Athabascan tribe to have migrated and taken up residence at a coastal location.

Their stories were often told to remind or teach their children how to behave. They tell about difficulties the people dealt with. Some are more historic in nature. They all tell something about the culture of the Dena’ina. The story of Chulyen’s crooked nose is a teaching story.

Raven, prominent in the Dena’ina story lore as the trickster, often committed naughty and sometimes foolish acts. Like many animals in the Dena’ina stories, he had special powers that enabled him to do fantastical things.

Dena’ina homes were often built on hillsides, away from the shoreline. This made surprise attacks from enemies difficult. Squirrel skins were important to the people. Dena’ina women would climb a nearby mountain in the fall and spend several weeks trapping the arctic ground squirrel, also called the “parka squirrel.” They made beautiful, warm blankets and parkas from the skins. Salmon, an essential food of the Dena’ina, was smoked to preserve it. The salmon was made into a kind of jerky that was eaten throughout the winter.

We use Dena’ina words where appropriate to remind us of the Dena’ina origins of the story, or sukdu. Dena’ina stories throughout time have ended with dach’ qidyuq, meaning “and that is what happened. . . .”

Chin’an.

Barbara J. Atwater and Ethan J. Atwater
Anchorage, Alaska

Chin’an, thank you, Uncle Walter, for sharing this with us. We now share it with others.

Learn more about the language on the Alaska Native Languages website

Learn more about the people on the Anchorage Museum website.

How Raven Got His Crooked Nose: An Alaskan Dena'ina Fable