The statewide Yup’ik Spelling Bee took place in Anchorage on Saturday. It’s the seventh time that the event has been held, and the fact that it is held at all is a testament to the efforts of Yup'ik speakers to create dictionaries and teach students to read, write, and speak the language in schools.
Nine kids from a handful of school districts sit in front of the room at the Alaska Native Heritage Center, listening carefully. Most have notebooks to write the words down, and most are from the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta.
The first word is tough. It might have been jitters, but about half the contestants fail to spell it correctly before one succeeds. Then the competitors settle in and many spell their words on the first try. The pace picks up.
Freda Dan organizes the annual Yup’ik Spelling Bee for beginners. She remembers the first one seven years ago.
“I organize it because there are no classes in Yup’ik for my children. I thought, 'how can I make them feel included in our culture and in this country.'”
It is still a family affair. Parents and relatives watch the contestants work out the spelling in their notebooks before getting up and walking to the podium to spell the words aloud. There is one contestant who does not use a notebook; Nurataaq Mathias Phillip is an eighth-grader from Tuluksak School in the Yupiit School District.
“I study almost every night. I always go through the pages, often repeatedly, until I get sleepy.”
During the competition, Freda Dan noticed the notebook sitting unused by Phillip’s chair.
“He was just spelling them out. That’s really amazing because some of the spellings are a little tricky sometimes.”
The words got more difficult. The battle went on, but it did not faze Phillip, who never reached for the notebook.
“The words were easy. I was hoping there were harder words, more longer words.”
Then it was the final word. The boy next to him failed to spell it correctly. Phillip stood up, walked to the podium, and spoke without hesitation.
“Tan’gurraq. T-A-N-apostrophe-G-U-R-R-A-Q. Tan’gurraq.”
Lorena Warren, one of the judges announced, “Assirtuq”.
“Assirtuq” means that Phillip got it right, taking first place in the statewide Yup’ik Spelling Bee. Sitting in the audience was his grandmother, Barbara Alexie, who drove in from Wasilla to watch the competition. She couldn’t be prouder.
“Chubby’s my grandson. I’m so proud of him, and I knew he’d do it because he works hard for it.”
With the recent establishment of a Yup’ik immersion program in Anchorage, as well as Yup’ik programs in other school districts, the annual Yup’ik spelling bee may get more challenging as both students and schools gain more competence in the language.