Bee-utifully Learning Yup’ik

a young girl writes on a notepad with a pencil, with posters behind her that read "Spelling Bee" and "Quyana"

The 8th Annual Yup’ik Spelling Bee for Beginners isn’t just about putting letters in the correct order. It’s about revitalizing a language through a new generation.

Spelling bee coach Becky Atchak trains students in Stebbins, which sent three middle-schoolers to the Anchorage bee with four students from Nunam Iqua. “I’ve always heard my parents speaking in Yup’ik, and it’s easier for me to learn the sounds and look at the words, because I grew up with it. It was already acquired,” Atchak says. Her pupils have a more difficult time because they don’t have experience with Yup’ik outside the classroom. The bee tests spelling, as well as Native language nuances, including its grammar and syllable sounds, which are quite different from English.

The Yup’ik spelling bee wouldn’t be possible without organizer Freda Dan. Unlike Atchak, Dan did not grow up speaking Yup’ik. The bee was a way to offer her young children and their peers a new way for learning the language. Dan says, “Coming into contact with these young people who were so dedicated and had such a strong desire to be connected with their language, it’s kept me intertwined and connected. It motivates me to go on every year.” One mother said her son would take the list of assigned words to bed with him, drifting off to sleep with the list still in his hands.

“The students that are participating… you can see the hunger in them that they’re wanting to learn, because they know that this is their indigenous language,” Dan says. “They wish that they could speak fluently, so they’re hungry for it.”

Image at top: Student Shea Matthias competes in the Yup’ik Spelling Bee for Beginners. Photo courtesy of Freda Dan.