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A Fourth Grader Makes History At Inupiaq Spelling Bee

Angie Alston

Competitors had a tough time getting to the Yup’ik and Inupiaq Statewide Spelling Bee this year, having to overcome the pandemic and weather just to attend. The competition did have fewer participants due to COVID-19, and a three-day whiteout almost kept one village from making an appearance. But the statewide event began just a little later than planned, starting in the evening instead of the morning.

KYUK’s Johanna Eurich reported that, despite the challenges, the spelling bee made history this year.

When the whiteout in Brevig Mission ended, the village's team flew to Anchorage, arriving in the afternoon of  April 17. At 6 p.m., they took the stage in the first ever Statewide Inupiaq Spelling Bee, led by coach Angie Alston. Alston took on coaching the Brevig Mission spellers for the same reason that Freda Dan created the Yupik Spelling Bee: to help herself, her child, and other children learn their traditional Native language.

“It helps me in my work,” said Alston. “Learning how to read, and write, and pronounce Inupiaq words and phrases, and then it primes those students to be ready to take Inupiaq language classes when they get to high school.”

Inupiaq language is now a growing part of the curriculum in the Brevig Mission school.

“I’ve been working with Hellen Ollana, our Elder in Brevig Mission, with the translating into the Brevig Mission dialect. So the curriculum is not complete. Each year we add a little bit more, and a little bit more,” said Alston.

Brevig Mission’s efforts resulted in the first ever Inupiaq Spelling Bee, and the coach’s daughter, a fourth grader, made history by becoming the first person to win. Kopeck Kaitlyn Alston spelled every single word correctly. For getting her spelling right, the judges used the same Inupiaq word over and over again: “naguuzruq.” Kimasuq Danielle Tocktoo came in second, and Kinaviaq Kyla Fahey came in third.

Freda Dan, the event’s organizer, was pleased with the Inupiaq Bee, and was already looking ahead to the challenges presented by future Inupiaq spelling bees. She said that the biggest issue will be dealing with Inupiaq dialects, which she said are more diverse and challenging than Yup’ik dialects. One example is the Inupiaq word for “hand,” which can sound quite different in all the dialects, but is always spelled the same way. There are also different ways of dealing with the alphabet when writing in Inupiaq.

"We were fortunate we were just dealing with one dialect this year. We still have an issue with the alphabet. There’s four different alphabets, and we’ll have to figure that out,” said Dan.

After making history, the Brevig Mission team and coach headed out for dinner, while the Yup'ik spellers got ready for their match. While there were a couple of contenders missing due to COVID-19, competition in the Yup’ik Bee was stiff. Judges needed a tie-breaker to decide third place.

The judges agreed that the result from fifth grader Kaliqtuq Natalie Mike from Stebbins was "assirtuq," which means "good" in Yup’ik. That made Mike the winner of the tiebreaker, and she took third place in the 2021 Statewide Yup’ik Spelling Bee.

Two students from Nunum-Iqua took first and second place, with sixth grader Maqaruaq Tieran Ignatius in first, and seventh grader Nacuk Wynonna Camile in second.

Editor's Note: The original headline of this story was "A Fourth Grader Makes History"

Johanna Eurich's vivid broadcast productions have been widely heard on National Public Radio since 1978. She spent her childhood speaking Thai, then learned English as a teenager and was educated at a dance academy, boarding schools and with leading intellectuals at her grandparents' dinner table in Philadelphia.
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