Native language spelling bee inspires students to learn

by Rhonda McBride

The statewide Yup’ik language spelling bee was born when one of Freda Dan’s son came home beaming, after he won a prize in an English spelling bee. She wondered: What kind of an impact would a Yup’ik spelling bee have on children?

Dan got to work to start the first Yup’ik spelling bee in what remains a grassroots, all-volunteer effort.

Fast-forward to a dozen years later. The Yup’ik competition is still going strong and now incorporates Inupiaq – two Alaska Native languages in a fight for survival.

The answer to Dan’s first question has some encouraging news. This annual event seems to have planted seeds of hope in communities across the state – that language can be saved if you work at it.

At this year’s statewide spelling bee, which was held at the Central Lutheran Church in downtown Anchorage on Saturday, Freda Dan put her family to work, registering students, taking photographs and serving refreshments.

Dan doesn’t get paid to organize this event – and receives very little in the way of donations.

But she’s proud of the plaques for the winners, which feature hand-carved masks, donated by the Bering Strait Native Corporation. They are pieces of art all by themselves, which students and parents took time to admire as they arrived.

The atmosphere in the room seemed deceptively calm, but many like Debra Jackson wrestled with their inner emotions.

“I’m like nervous for these kids,” said Debra Ayagalria Jackson, who is the coach and Yup’ik language teacher for Akiak, a Kuskokwim River village in Southwest Alaska. She lets out a big sigh.

“Practice. Practice. Practice,” Jackson’s mantra for the past year.

She’s been working with her students since last fall, using a packet Dan prepared, which includes a list of about 300 words that rotate every year. There are also materials to help the students learn not just the words, but what they mean, and how to use them in sentences.

Dan also included exercises for the students and information about the Yup’ik alphabet system, which isn’t easy to learn, because it uses apostrophes, symbols and combinations of letters to produce sounds that aren’t in the English language.

The modern Yup’ik spelling system, or orthography, is fairly new, created by Yup’ik scholars in the 1960’s. It revamped an older alphabet, developed by the Moravian church in the 1930’s to translate the Bible. For years, the two spelling systems caused confusion. But today, the modern system is fully embraced, and the spelling bee helps to reinforce it.

For Akiak parents like Sheila Aiggailnguq Williams-Carl, the spelling bee has also helped to reawaken community-wide interest in keeping the Yup’ik language, or Yugtun, alive.

“We converse a majority of the time with each other in English,” she says.

Williams-Carl tries to compensate by speaking to her children in Yug’tun and is especially proud of her daughter, Megan. Although she’s only in the fourth grade, she’s done well at both school and district-level spelling bees, which have helped her become more disciplined and more confident.

“A lot of kids have a hard time with public speaking and getting up in front of a crowd. So, in that way it’s been good for her,” Williams-Car said. “She’s a very quiet and very shy student, but she is really determined.”

Megan is so shy, she whispered into the microphone the letters for words like Cingssiik, which means “Little People” — elf-like creatures who wear cone-shaped hats that look like fish traps.

She was a few letters off, so she didn’t earn any points for that word — but even though she was one of the youngest at this year’s spelling bee, she held her own against eighth graders and overall, finished in the top third.

Jackson, her coach, says Megan and the rest of the Akiak team show a lot of promise.

“I’m so proud of them,” she said. “They may be younger, but they still have so many years, they still have until eighth grade. They’re going to be perfect.”

Perfection in spelling, especially for Indigenous languages, takes persistence. And the spelling bee takes that into account.

If a word is misspelled, the judge says, “Quyana,” or thank you, a polite signal to the student that the word was misspelled and for the next contestant to give it a try. In several cases, it took many tries, with everyone waiting to hear the word “Assirtuq,” which means “Good,” confirming the word was spelled correctly.

Assirtuq was a word that Nunam Iqua’s team heard a lot. It swept all three top spots in the Yup’ik spelling bee. Alayna Pasrata’ar Canoe, an eighth grader, took home the first place trophy.

“It feels good, winning,” she said about a feeling she has experienced for the second year in a row.

Her coach and Yup’ik teacher, Savanna Strongheart said the news made her feel a little light- headed.

“My goal was ever since I started was to get one, two, three — and this year I have one, two, three,” Strongheart said. “So, I’m like all excited and I want to scream.”

The spelling bee came full circle this year for many, who have been involved since it began twelve years ago.

One of the students, who took second place in that very first spelling bee, returned as a guest speaker.

When Casey Jack was 13-years-old, he represented the tiny Bering Sea village of Stebbins in the spelling bee. Today, he’s an adjunct professor of Yup’ik language at the University of Alaska Fairbanks and says, it was the spelling bee which sparked his passion for Native languages.

“One of the defining moments I would say,” Jack said.

He also finds it impressive that the spelling bee still lives on, mostly through volunteer efforts.

“It shows that people still care, and our language and culture still mean a lot to us,” Jack said.

While the Yup’ik spelling bee had four schools involved, there was only one team for the Inupiaq language. Cameron Tocktoo of Brevig Mission took first place, which Jack says is an important milestone.

“The spelling bee is still in its beginning stages, only being on its third year,” Jack said. “But I have faith that it will grow just as the Yup’ik spelling bee has.”

Jack encouraged the students to keep up with their studies, so they could take advantage of growing opportunities to teach Native languages and culture.

And for him, the teachable moment, was watching the students give their best effort. And that spells success. Assirtuq.

This story is courtesy of Rhonda McBride and KNBA 90.3FM, a Koahnic Broadcast Station and was broadcast on April 21st , 2023.