Yup’ik literacy reaches new heights in spelling bee

(From left to right) First place winner Angniun Opriann Lomack of Akiachak, second place winner Akagaralria Auna Friday of Chevak, and third place winnter Allirkaar Richelle Phillip of Akiachak. (Photo courtesy of Max Dan)

This weekend, the longest battle in its short history took place at the Statewide Yup’ik Spelling Bee for Beginners.

Before it began, it already looked like it might take a while, because there were more contestants than ever in the Yup’ik Spelling Bee for Beginners. But no one thought it would take four hours to narrow the field down to the winners. The 18 contestants began at 11 a.m. on Saturday, and it was after 3:00 p.m. when the winners were announced.

“They were all very strong spellers,” said organizer Freda Dan. “That was the problem.”

Dan remembers that many could not spell the words correctly eight years ago, when she began the spelling bee as a way to help students learn to write Yup’ik. This spelling bee is different for many reasons. First, no one gets eliminated if they spell a word wrong. Contestants just keep spelling new words until it is clear who has spelled the most.

“Assirtuq,” declared a judge. That’s Yup’ik for “correct.”

It’s not just the rules that make this spelling bee unique. A few decades ago, it would have been impossible to hold such an event because Yup’ik was still mostly a spoken language. Few knew how to write it down, and those who did disagreed on how to spell the words. It took the efforts of many Yup’ik linguists and elders to come up with the Modern Yup’ik Dictionary, the reference that makes this spelling bee possible. Roxanne Noes coaches for the Yupiit school district.

“I remember I used to read the old version of the Yup’ik, and then I see this new modern Yup’ik is way different then the old language we used to read when we were little kids,” she said.

Even with a dictionary, this spelling bee is no walk in the park. There are several dialects in the Yup’ik language, making it tough for speakers of one dialect to understand certain words in another dialect.

“This spelling bee covers all Yup’ik dialects,” organizers announced before the competition began. The first round was tough, but there were some who clearly had more expertise. During the first round, the judges agreed that they had a winner. Angniun Opriann Lomack, a sixth grader from Akiachak, had spelled every word she had been given correctly. But that did not end the contest; there was a tie for second and third place to resolve among no less than six competitors.

“Spellers take a break for five minutes,” Dan announced, while she and the judges conferred.

They needed time to choose more words for the next battle, which narrowed the field down to three, and then the final two, each of whom spoke a different dialect. Allirkaar Richelle Phillip speaks a Central Yup’ik dialect spoken in Akiachak, and Akagarallaria Auna Friday speaks the Cu’pik spoken in the coastal village of Chevak.

The final word was “Epulek.” The audience was silent as the two spelled; everyone was keeping track. Phillip did not get it right, then Friday began.

“E-P-U-L-E-K, epulek,” she said, and heard the prayed-for “assirtuq” from the judge.

When the applause stopped. Friday walked to the hallway. Surrounded by friends, family, and her coach, the third-grader was still thinking over the tough words.

“I get mixed up with K and Q, and R and G. They sound kind of the same,” she said.

This was the first time that students from Chevak had competed in the statewide spelling bee. Those surrounding her were proud to see her on the podium. The coach, Monica Friday, is Auna’s mother.

“This one’s been a nail-biter all day. I had confidence in her and I believed in her. I’m so proud,” she said.

To earn her second place on the podium, Friday had to out-spell Richelle Phillip, the cousin of the winner of this year’s Yup’ik Spelling Bee. Both cousins are sixth graders at Akiachak School. The winner, Angniun Opriann Lomack, worried about one competitor more than any other.

“I thought my cousin Richelle was going to beat me,” Lomack said.

Akiachak is part of the Yupiit School District. This is the second year that the district has participated in the statewide contest, and the second year that a Yupiit student has won the Yup’ik Statewide Spelling Bee.