Yup’ik literacy reaches new heights with statewide spelling bee

From left to right: First place winner Angniun Opriann Lomack of Akiachak, second place winner Akagaralria Auna Friday of Chevak, and third place winnter Allirkaar Richelle Phillip of Akiachak.

From left to right: First place winner Angniun Opriann Lomack of Akiachak, second place winner Akagaralria Auna Friday of Chevak, and third place winner Allikaar Richelle Phillip of Akiachak. (Photo courtesy Max Dan)

This weekend, the statewide Yup’ik Spelling Bee for Beginners saw the toughest spell-off in the eight-year history of the event.

Before it began, the spelling bee already looked like it might take a while, because there were more contestants than ever in the Yup’ik Spelling Bee for Beginners.

The 18 contestants began at 11 a.m. on Saturday, and it was after 3:00 p.m. when the winners were announced.

“They were all very strong spellers,” said organizer Freda Dan. “That was the problem.”

Dan remembered that many could not spell the words correctly eight years ago, when she began the spelling bee as a way to help students learn to write Yup’ik. This spelling bee is different for many reasons. First, no one gets eliminated if they spell a word wrong. Contestants just keep spelling new words until it is clear who has spelled the most.

It’s not just the rules that make this spelling bee unique. A few decades ago, it would have been impossible to hold such an event, because Yup’ik was still mostly a spoken language. Few knew how to write it down, and those who did disagreed on how to spell the words. It took the efforts of many Yup’ik linguists and Elders to come up with a modern Yup’ik dictionary.

Roxanne Nose coaches for the Yupiit School District.

“I remember I used to read the old version of the Yup’ik, and then I see this new modern Yup’ik is way different than the old language we used to read when we were little kids,” she said.

Even with a dictionary, this spelling bee is no walk in the park. There are several dialects in the Yup’ik language, making it tough for speakers of one dialect to understand certain words in another dialect.


This video about the Yup’ik Spelling Bee for Beginners was produced by the Anchorage School District.

The first round was tough, but there were some who clearly had more expertise. During the first round, the judges agreed that they had a winner. Angniun Opriann Lomack, a sixth grader from Akiachak, had spelled every word she had been given correctly.

But that did not end the contest. There was a tie for second and third place to resolve among no less than six competitors.

The next battle narrowed the field down to three, and then the final two — each of whom spoke a different dialect. Allikaar Richelle Phillip speaks a central Yup’ik dialect spoken in Akiachak, and Akagaralria Auna Friday speaks the Cu’pik spoken in the coastal village of Chevak.

The final word was “epulek,” the Yup’ik word for “salmonberry.” Phillip did not get it right. Then Friday began.

“E-P-U-L-E-K, epulek,” she said. The judge then announced “assirtuq” — a word meaning “correct” in Yup’ik — and the audience erupted in cheers.

Friday would earn second place in the competition. Surrounded by friends, family and her coach, the third-grader was still thinking over the tough words.

“I get mixed up with ‘k’ and ‘q’ and ‘r’ and ‘g.’ They sound kind of the same,” she said.

This was the first time that students from Chevak had competed in the statewide spelling bee. The coach, Monica Friday, is Auna’s mother.

“This one’s been a nail-biter all day. I had confidence in her, and I believed in her. I’m so proud,” she said.

To earn her second place on the podium, Friday had to out-spell Phillip, the teasing cousin of Lomack, the winner of this year’s Yup’ik Spelling Bee. Both cousins are sixth graders at Akiachak School.

Lomack worried about one competitor more than any other.

“I thought my cousin Richelle was going to beat me,” said Lomack.

Akiachak is part of the Yupiit School District. This is the second year that the district has participated in the statewide contest, and the second year that a Yupiit student has won the Yup’ik Statewide Spelling Bee.

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