Immersion bears fruit at Diné language spelling bee

By Cindy Yurth
Tséyi' Bureau

TSAILE, Ariz., Nov. 21, 2013

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(Times photo and video - Cindy Yurth)

TOP PHOTO: Olathe Antonio of Window Rock High School correctly spells “Hwééldi” (Ft. Sumner) during the Diné Spelling Bee at Diné College Monday.

BOTTOM PHOTO: Song and dance contestants from Tsehootsooi Diné Bi Olta regroup after lunch at the Diné Song and Dance Competition and Spelling Bee at Diné College Monday.

VIDEO: Contestants in the Fire Dance at the spelling bee.

Learning to speak Navajo is hard enough. Reading and writing it is a different animal altogether. But when it comes to spelling it correctly ... that's how you really separate the hastóí from the ashiike.

Or the sáanii from the atéeke, as it were, since the first-, second- and third-place winners in the high school division of the Diné Spelling Bee at Diné College Monday were all girls.

The words started out simple, or as simple as it gets in Navajo (loo', bik'is, bilóód), but by the time Jannon Quanah of Rock Point Secondary School and Elisia Kee of Window Rock High School were left trading the lead, the pronouncers were rattling off the likes of "t'aanahonit'ingo" (in a roundabout way; sneakily) and "biláhasdiid" (lost). Quanah finally clinched the match in the 18th round with "k'ehézdon" (straight).

Cheryl John, also of Rock Point, placed a very respectable third.

Spelling Bee judge Thomas Littleben, a Diné language professor at Diné College, said the best way to become a good Navajo speller is to read books written in Navajo. "That way, you just get used to seeing the words," he explained. In recent years, the number of titles to choose from has skyrocketed -- mostly thanks to Flagstaff's Salina Bookshelf, Littleben said.

It also doesn't hurt to grow up in a community that has a language immersion school, as all three winners did.

"When you go to a Navajo school, you use some of those words every day," said Olathe Antonio of Window Rock, who stayed in the bee for several rounds. She had attended Tse Hootsooi Diné bi Olta.

The rules were pretty much the same as for a traditional spelling bee, except that the spellers wrote their words on a whiteboard instead of spelling them orally. It helped them to remember to place all the right high-tone marks and cedillas, rather than trying to describe where each mark went.

And leaving out a high-tone mark or a cedilla marking the vowel as nasalized resulted in a misspelling, as many contestants discovered.

There was plenty of interest in this year's high school bee, part of the college's annual Diné Song and Dance and Diné Spelling Bee sponsored by the Center for Diné Teacher Education and the Center for Diné Studies.

This was the second Diné Spelling Bee sponsored by the college. The high school category started out with 25 contestants, halved to 12 after the first round and pared to five after the second.

Top Diné spellers

High School

  • 1st -- Jannon Quanah, Rock Point Community Secondary School
  • 2nd -- Elesia Kee, Window Rock H.S.
  • 3rd -- Cheryl John, Rock Point Community

Secondary School College

  • 1st -- Jherimiah Benally, Diné College
  • 2nd -- Shannon Gorman, Diné College
  • 3rd -- Kyann Dedman, Diné College

"That was some good spelling" toward the end, pronouncer Martha Jackson had to admit.

The college category drew 24 contestants, mostly from Diné College but one from Northern Arizona University.

"The plan is to have these types of events for our students for high school and colleges every fall and spring semester," Littleben said. "We plan to include Navajo language arts such as poetry reading, story/joke-telling, creative writing, choral reading, reader's theater and spelling bee this spring 2014."

Meanwhile, back at the student union building, other youngsters were singing and dancing their way into the judges' hearts. The students seemed to enjoy watching each other's acts as much as they did performing.

"I haven't heard any of these songs in years," pronounced Kolten Bia of Many Farms High School, who, as a high school senior, was one of the cheiis of the contest and thus entitled to the sage remark. Bia was waiting with his group to perform a fire dance, but the teens were upstaged by tiny first-graders squirming in their satin and velvet.

The Squaw Dance Boys, billing themselves as "The Newest Comedy Act on the Rez," provided some comic relief for the nervous young performers, cavorting onstage in a mixture of English and Navajo.

"Billy Joe Jim Bob," one half of the duo, professed himself a member of the "Purple Butt Baboon Clan" and proceeded to try to cure his brother, "Jordy Jimmy Johnson," of a pain in the neck using a faux monkey skin he called "Roger."

Diné College President Maggie George was enjoying the festivities, and made some brief remarks before the spelling bee.

"This is the heart of what we do at Diné College," George said. "And I'm happy we are embracing it in this way."

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