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Yup'ik and Iñupiaq spelling bees keep native Alaskan languages alive

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

For the Yup'ik and Inupiat people of Alaska, a spelling bee is more than a friendly competition. As Alaska Public Media's Katie Anastas reports, spelling bees are a way for kids to connect to their culture and to make sure native languages live on.

KATIE ANASTAS, BYLINE: At this year's Yup'ik and Inupiaq spelling bees, 16 students from all over Alaska took the stage. Freda Dan organized the Yup'ik competition. She also served as a judge who read aloud the words and gave students the definition.

FREDA DAN: Kagia. He is sweeping it. He is sweeping it.

MEGAN CARL: Kagia - K-A-G-I-A. Kagia.

ANASTAS: That's Megan Carl getting it right. Dan says the spelling bee lets students read and write in a language they might only speak or hear spoken by elders.

DAN: This might be the only time they'll ever get to learn how to spell. Maybe afterward, it never happens ever again. So this is a really big opportunity.

ANASTAS: Dan set up the first Yup'ik spelling bee 10 years ago. She came up with a list of words and created study guides for coaches and students around the state.

DAN: It feels like they're reaching for this. They're reaching to have this. They take it upon themselves to do this. And that's what keeps me going year after year, is feeling the enthusiasm of the spellers.

ANASTAS: More recently, she worked with volunteers to set up an Inupiaq spelling bee. Spectators weren't allowed at last year's competition because of COVID, and only one school signed up to participate in the Inupiaq bee last year. But for Dan, that was OK.

DAN: The pandemic made me realize that it was really OK just to have one school in because their effort was so inspiring, and they were so brave.

ANASTAS: The winner of this year's Yup'ik competition was seventh-grader Alayna Canoe.

ALAYNA CANOE: I'm a bit shocked. And I was just a little bit scared, but mostly confident.

ANASTAS: There was one word she found really difficult to spell.

ALAYNA: Cuukiiq.

ANASTAS: It means sock, and it's spelled C-U-U-K-I-I-Q.

ALAYNA: I just forgot one U.

ANASTAS: The Inupiaq spelling bee winner was fifth-grader Kaitlyn Alston. Suzzuk Mary Huntington coordinated that competition. She says promoting literacy in native languages is vital.

SUZZUK MARY HUNTINGTON: Almost any place in our language-learning journey of second-language learners of our heritage languages have so many structures built in that shut us down and make us feel inferior and incapable.

ANASTAS: The spelling bee, she says, is a place where students can make mistakes, ask questions and take pride in their culture.

HUNTINGTON: Any opportunity to eliminate the judgment and the inadequacy factors - they're not just helpful; they're a hundred percent needed.

ANASTAS: This year's participants are part of a new generation, making sure the sounds of Yup'ik and Inupiaq don't fade away.

For NPR News, I'm Katie Anastas in Anchorage. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.