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2021 Statewide Yup’ik Spelling Bee Included Iñupiat Spellers for the First Time

Children sitting in chairs spaced out wearing masks.
2021 Yup'ik spellers at work (Photo by Ruth Dan, used with permission)

This year’s Yup’ik Statewide Spelling Bee for Beginners included Iñupiat spellers for the first time. Fourth grader Kopeck Kaitlyn Alston from Brevig Mission earned first place, Kimasuq Danielle Tocktoo came in second, and Kinaviaq Kyla Fahey came in third.

Even with weather and travel obstacles, Yup’ik spellers from Nunam Iqua and Stebbins and Iñupiat spellers from Brevig Mission gathered in Anchorage last weekend for the competition. KNOM’s Sophia DeSalvo reports:

Freda Dan started the first Statewide Yup’ik Spelling Bee 10 years ago as an opportunity for her children to reconnect with and learn their traditional language.

“They were used to a classroom learning environment. And I thought, well, a spelling bee would be a really good way to get introduced into the language because it would help them learn to pronounce words and help them learn to understand what the words mean.”

– Freda Dan

Dan continues to organize and lead the event. Last year’s Statewide Spelling Bee was cancelled due to COVID-19. Throughout this year’s spelling bee season, the COVID-19 pandemic still proved to be an enormous barrier for Dan. But she found support from Suzzuk Mary Huntington, the Coordinator of Cultural Programs for the Bering Strait School District (BSSD).

“Even though I didn’t have the minimum (number of spellers), we should consider this a celebration of our languages. She asked me to consider that there would be very low numbers because of COVID and that it was a really good thing that despite COVID, we managed to find spellers to make it through. ”

– Freda Dan

Dan and Huntington provide the structure and support for schools interested in participating in the spelling bee, such as supplying practice materials and finding coaches. This year, Huntington held the district spelling bee virtually for Brevig Mission so that they could compete in the state competition.

While Brevig Mission was the only school to participate in the 2021 Iñupiaq Statewide Spelling Bee, both Dan and Huntington are thankful for the community’s commitment to supporting language revitalization.

“Announcer: Kopeck, it’s your turn to give it a try, and the word is ‘tinnun’ (x2)…”

Huntington said that in order to move forward, they need more coaches who are willing to help.

“It really is about coaches. Finding coaches and finding adults who can feel like they have something to offer and that it’s not going to be too intimidating or they don’t know enough to be able to do it in the way that they would want to.”

– Suzzuk Mary Huntington

Huntington acknowledges that there are still only a handful of people who speak Iñupiaq fluently and even fewer who can read and write the language. But even with that gap in knowledge, Huntington believes that the spelling bee can serve as a learning and revitalization process for everyone involved.

“Use whatever language we have as much as possible. If we have to go back and refine and correct, that’s fine. We’ll still be learning. And really be gracious and patient with both ourselves and the people making the efforts because I definitely see reclamation of our Iñupiaq language.”

– Suzzuk Mary Huntington

In the Statewide Yup’ik Spelling Bee, Stebbins’ fifth grader Kaliqtuq Natalie Mike earned third place.

Huntington and Dan are proud of this year’s event and all of the effort, encouragement, and enthusiasm that went into it. And they predict there will be even more healthy competition in 2022.

Image at top: 2021 Yup’ik spellers at work (Photo by Ruth Dan, used with permission).

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