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Annual Yup'ik Spelling Bee Connects Identity And Culture In Young Spellers

For the second year in a row, Daniel Ayaginag Hunter from Nunam Iqua won the 2017 Yup'ik Spelling Bee in Anchorage on April 15, 2017.
Johanna Eurich

Competition was tough and quick during the Yup'ik Spelling Bee this weekend in Anchorage. Even with four schools from two school districts, competition quickly became a battle between the former champ Daniel Ayaginag Hunter from Nunam Iqua and contenders in Kotlik. 

Ayaginag was in the room when his coach,  Savanah Caviapak Strongheart took the microphone Saturday to get the competition started.

"Welcome to the Yup'ik Spelling Bee For Beginners Statewide, the final spelling bee for the season."

Everyone knew Ayaginag was the one to beat, but something quickly became apparent: spelling in Yup'ik is a lot harder than spelling in English. Bearing witness was one contestant who did not place in Saturday's competition but earlier came in fourth in the statewide English Spelling Bee.

The Yup'ik alphabet may have only 16 letters but there are some tough rules, and things that sound kind of close.

"Oh, even I have trouble with it," said says Cayiapak. "There's the G and R and the Q and K. Even I have trouble with those."

The first word in the spelling bee, "Qiugliq,"  had almost everyone stumped.

"Q U I G L I K "

"Quyana" came from the judges. "Quyana" is not something a contestant wants to hear in a Yup'ik Spelling Bee.  It means "thank you."

What you want to hear is "Assirtuq," which means, "It's fine." And we didn't get to hear that until we got through more than half the contestants, to  Luci Nayaraq Prince, a speller from Kotlik.

"Qiugliq. Q I U G L I Q.  Qiugliq."

"Assirtuq. "

Prince wasn't in the room. The three spellers from Kotlik were weathered in and participating via the internet. But that did not stop them from spelling, though it made it tougher on them to hear the exact pronunciation of the word.  And at one point, the technology threw a wringer at  Madison Arrsauyaq Okitkun in Kotlik.

"Ingriq, Ingriq." 


Then nothing. The picture on the screen froze.

But the frozen network interruption did not stop Madison, who got it right.

"I  N G R I Q. Ingriq."


There is more at stake here than spelling.  Every adult involved says learning the Yup'ik language is about identity and culture. Freda Dan, the event's founder and organizer, grew up without speaking Yup'ik, because her parents wanted her to concentrate on English and do well in school.  She became another statistic in what, at the time, was a prevalent belief that knowing other languages would interfere with learning English. But now there is lots of evidence that muli-lingual students do better over the long run. For Dan, who worked to re-learn her language as an adult, the issue became how to make sure her own children could speak and read Yup'ik. That's when she decided to organize a Yup'ik spelling bee.

"Ironically, by the time I got it going, omething or another would make it so [none of my kids] could be in the spelling bee," said Dan.

It may have taken her a while to organize that first Yup'ik Spelling Bee, but Saturday it did not take much time to find the winners.

"Maqaruaq. M A Q A R U A Q. Maqaruaq."

It only took six words to narrow the competition down to Daniel Hunter, who was in the room, and Luci Prince and Madison Okitkun in Kotlik.


Third Place went to Laci Nayaraq Prince of Kotlik, second to Madison Arrsauyaq Okitkun of Kotlik, and first place went to Daniel Ayaginag Hunter from Nunam Iqua.

The winning word was "Aiggaq," which means "hand" in one dialect.  The same word last year was "Unan," which also means "hand" in Yup'ik but in another dialect.  The Spelling Bee uses a different dialect each year.

If there is any question about the connection of language to identity, just look at the winner of this year's Yup'ik Spelling Bee. He did not grow up a Yup'ik speaker. He began by learning the Yup'ik alphabet and speaking Yup'ik in school last year and won the spelling Bee in his first year. Now he's back doing the same again with admittedly tougher competition, but it is what he is doing outside of school that underscores the importance of the language to culture and  his identity. Ayaginag Daniel has joined the Nunam Iqua traditional dance group.

In the words of his coach, Caviapak, "Daniel loves to sing in Yupik."