Yupik Spelling Bee helps spread Yupik literacy

Young Alaska Natives are spreading Yup’ik literacy. Six students from across the state competed in the fifth annual Yup’ik Spelling Bee for Beginners in Anchorage over the weekend. The contest is open to third through eighth grade and run by volunteers. It’s a lot of work. And with responsibility concentrated to a few individuals, the future of the event is in question.

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“Uivenqegg. U-I-V-E-N-Q-E-G-G. Uivenqegg. It means to turn around or spin,” said Daniel Hunter as he recited his first place winning word at the 2016 Yupik Spelling Bee

Hunter is a seventh grader at Sheldon Point School in Nunam Iqua, located on the mouth of the Yukon River.

Hunter said the final word was an easy one for him. It’s written on the wall in his school classroom. And he says he just pictured the poster in his mind.

“I feel happy,” Hunter said. “I thought I wouldn’t come first, but I did good.”

Hunter helps his family and friends with the language. He’s only 12, but he’s thinking about the future. He says he wants to learn Yup’ik to keep the language alive, so he can someday teach it to his own kids—something he says his parents aren’t able to do for him.

Savannah Strongheart is Hunter’s coach and the bilingual/bicultural teacher at Sheldon Point. She says its common in Nunam Iqua for only elders to speak Yup’ik. She hopes students working towards the spelling bee will reverse that trend.

“I think it’s important for them to know their language and know where they come from and who they are,” said Strongheart.

Strongheart’s students started preparing in November, practicing at home and coming in for a couple hours on the weekends, even over Christmas break.

The months of work and the necessary credentials means finding coaches like Strongheart is hard.

Freda Dan started the bee and has struggled to find coaches across the state. This year she found five. There are a lot of hoops to jump through. Dan said people might know Yup’ik culture, but they doesn’t mean they can speak Yup’ik, and few people who speak the language know how to read and write it. On top of that, Dan said, they have to be able to teach.

“It’s really hard to come across people who are familiar with the orthography,” Dan said. “There’s a good number of fluent people, but there’s not a good number of literate people.”

To help overcome those barriers, Dan sends coaches weekly teaching material and spends 20 to 30 hours a week preparing the packets. She’s researching, double checking, and reading Yup’ik, English, and French language books to figure out how to teach literacy. This effort is on her own time without compensation, and it’s all she says, so kids won’t have to teach the language to themselves— something she’s been doing for 25 years.

“I know how very, very difficult it is to figure stuff out on your own, and I think a lot of kids’ recourse is to teach themselves,” said Dan.

Dan is concerned about the future of the cultural education that is the essence of the spelling bee, which she considers the state’s only proficiency test for Yup’ik literacy. She doesn’t know how long she’ll be able to sustain the bee without extra support. For now, she says the kids who want to take part in learning their language, like first place winner Daniel Hunter, keep her going.