By Joe Slowinski

According to the Alaska Native Language Center, at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, of an estimated population of 21,000, there are approximately 10,000 speakers of Yup’ik. Of the estimated 13,500 Iñupiaq in Alaska, 3,000 are speakers of the language. However, language acquisition programs like the Annual Yup’ik and Iñupiaq spelling bees are working to bolster those numbers.

“There are many goals for holding this [spelling] bee,” explained the program’s organizer and founder, Freda Dan. “It gives Yup’ik speakers an avenue for learning and communicating in their language. It also gives third through eighth-grade spellers a chance to learn definitions for words, a safe place to practice pronunciation, and to learn to spell.”

Unlike traditional spelling bees, which focus on competition, in the Yup’ik and Iñupiaq bees, spellers are not eliminated when a word is misspelled. Instead, each participant earns a point for every word spelled correctly.

“It’s really important to me that my children are connected to their Indigenous heritage. Language can be a really important part of culture and identity,” explained Brevig Mission School teacher Angie Alston.

In the 2018-19 school year, Brevig Mission offered Iñupiaq as an elective for the first time with the help of Elder Helen Olanna.

“My daughter’s grandfather, Fred Olanna, had agreed to help me teach an Inupiaq language class to high school students at Brevig Mission School,” said Angie Alston. “After his death, I was overcome with a sense of urgency around language and what I could do to help my children and my students have experiences speaking Iñupiaq.”

Alston’s efforts paid off as her daughter, Kopeck Kaitlyn Alston, walked away with top honors at this year’s Iñupiaq spelling bee on April 16.

To prepare, the Alston’s used flashcards and recordings.

“I practiced flashcards with her, and then I would quiz her on words, and she would write them on a giant whiteboard,” Alston said. “Kunaq Tahbone of Nome and Suzzuk Huntington from the Bering Strait School District provided sound recordings of the words. We played those recordings for Kaitlyn so that she could hear pronunciations by speakers with a higher degree of Inupiaq proficiency.”

“’Aullaġniaqtuŋa is my favorite word. It’s my favorite because I think it’s easy to spell. The English translation is ‘I am going to leave.’ It’s a whole sentence in one word,” added Alston’s daughter with glee.

The Yupik division included thirteen participants from Anchorage, Akiak, Akiachak, Dillingham, Nunam Iqua, and Stebbins. Seventh-grader Pasrataar Alayna Canoe, a student at Nunam Iqua School in the Lower Yukon School District, walked away a winner.

“It was a long, tough match and an intense draw for second and third in the Yup’ik division. It was a tight match between top spellers. All 35 words were used, and additional words were selected to continue the bee. When those words were used, the field was narrowed down to the top three spellers with tied points for second and third place,” remarked Dan. “Very difficult words were selected to finalize the play.”

The tight competition wasn’t entirely unexpected as each speller had to participate in local and district competitions before making it to the state finals.

“It is a challenge, but there are words that are similar to [our] native Filipino language,” explained Alain Bjorn M. Paje. An educator from the Philippines teaching in Stebbins, Paje had two children competing.

“Their selection and participation in the Yup’ik spelling bee is a great joy for me and my wife because my children have adapted to the ways of village life and their willingness to learn a new language. Learning is everywhere, and being new to the country and to the State of Alaska, I encourage my children to explore and learn as much as they can,” said Paje.

Paje’s son, Naaqista Blaine Paje, secured third place in his first state championship and is excited to continue his language studies.



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