International Lingít Spelling Bee brings together Alaska Native language learners in Juneau

Contestants in the Fourth International Lingít Spelling Bee held in Juneau on Sept. 27, 2019. (Photo by Zoe Grueskin/KTOO)

Members of Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian tribes and clans came together for the Sharing Our Knowledge Conference, held in Juneau Sept. 26-29. The jam-packed schedule included ceremonies, dozens of presentations — and the Fourth International Lingít Spelling Bee.

There is no ready-made Lingít word for “spelling bee.” But Will Geiger was curious.

So not long before he stepped onstage to compete, Geiger consulted Tlingit elder and educator Kingeisti David Katzeek.

Katzeek offered a phrase that, Geiger explained, means something like, “People coming together to — almost, like, against one another, with the written names. Something like that.”

Geiger is not Tlingit, but he has been studying the Lingít language for about eight years. He works on language projects at the Sealaska Heritage Institute in Juneau — and he’s a past champion of the spelling bee, which has happened a few times over the years at clan conferences. It’s meant to be a lighthearted event, not too serious. Geiger showed up at this one not necessarily intending to participate, but he was persuaded.

Organizer Kashgé Daphne Wright was a little worried about having enough competitors.

“We just hope that people will come and participate, because it’s harder than it looks,” Wright said.

Eventually, nine spellers were assembled. A few had grown up speaking Lingít with their families. Others were white Juneauites who’d begun studying the language only recently. And making the competition truly international, one contestant had traveled to the conference from her home in the Yukon.

Wright, a Lingít teacher in Hoonah, discussed what assistance would be available to spellers with Virginia Oliver, who would be pronouncing the words. They agreed Oliver could define a word in English, use it in a sentence and act it out with hand gestures.

Other than that, it was pretty standard spelling bee rules.

“The speller may start over on spelling a word but may not correct an error once it has been uttered. The pronouncer will be the judge,” said Oliver.

Oliver turned to be a pretty forgiving judge — a fact appreciated by contestant Skíl Jáadei Linda Schrack from Ketchikan.

She was given the word “héen,” the Lingít word for “water.”

“X, high tone E, E,” Schrack began. “Oh wait, no. X underline? Oh, H! Third time’s the charm.”

Wright, who has organized previous Lingít spelling bees with her sister, Linda Belarde, said they usually go fast. Spellers miss words and get eliminated quickly, because when you’re spelling words in Lingít, Wright said, it’s not just letters you have to remember.

“Tone marks, pinches, underlines. It’s all vital, it’s part of the spelling, so if they miss even one of those things (then it’s misspelled),” said Wright.

When Schrack eventually missed a word and was out of the competition, she wasn’t too upset. She’s Haida, not Tlingit. She took part in the spelling bee alongside a couple friends from work at Ketchikan Indian Community. Schrack said they often teach each other words in their languages — Lingít or the Haida language, Xaad Kíl — and they thought it would be fun to do together.

“It was a little nerve racking, because I’m not sure the exact sounds of the Lingít alphabet as compared to the Xaad Kíl, so I was just taking a guess,” Wright said.

Schrack said she’d like to hold a Xaad Kíl spelling bee with her students in Ketchikan.

In the end, Geiger was again named top speller. The winning word: “t’ooch’,” meaning “charcoal.”

His prize: a certificate and a book about Alaska Native languages.

After the bee, several of the contestants wanted to stay and play Lingít language learning games, but another event was scheduled to start in the same room: a panel on learning ancestral languages. A few of the contestants were even speaking on the panel. So there was just time to rearrange some furniture, say congratulations and thank you — Gunalchéesh.

Editor’s note: KTOO Public Media was under contract to produce video coverage of the 2019 Sharing Our Knowledge Conference.

Lingít learner Barbara Craver displays a Lingít language learning game modeled on “Go Fish.” She and others played the game before the Fourth International Lingít Spelling Bee in Juneau on Sept. 27, 2019. (Photo by Zoe Grueskin/KTOO)