Navajo language spelling bee returns to Farmington schools

Noel Lyn Smith
Farmington Daily Times

FARMINGTON — Spelling bees in English are challenging but one in the Navajo language enters another level with words that use accent marks, high tones, glottal stops and nasal tones.

Knowledge of the Navajo language was on display by students from Farmington Municipal Schools' elementary, middle and high schools during the 2022 Diné Spelling Bee on March 31.

There were 30 participants – 12 of them elementary students, 13 of them middle school students and five of them high school students.

During the event, the students used a small whiteboard to write words before spelling them out loud in front of a panel of four judges and an audience filled with family and friends.

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Heights Middle School student Nikolai John spells the word he received in the Navajo language during the 2022 Diné Spelling Bee on March 31 at Piedra Vista High School in Farmington.

"They have to assure that they’re using capital letters, the accent marks and assuring that they spell it correctly," said Carmelita Lee, the district's instructional facilitator.

The vocabulary list used in the competition comes from the Wall & Morgan Navajo-English Dictionary.

The spelling bee started with the elementary school division and with the word, golchóón (comforter or quilt), given to Apache Elementary School student Zachary Curley, who spelled the word correctly.

Animas Elementary School student Lillian Leiba writes out the word she received in the Navajo language during the elementary school division of the 2022 Diné Spelling Bee on March 31 at Piedra Vista High School in Farmington.

The first round continued with words like sis (belt, sash), Hwééldi (Fort Sumner, New Mexico), sik'az (an object is cold) and kodí (over here).

When Animas Elementary School student Lillian Leiba had to spell hashtl'ish (mud), she asked that the word be repeated twice before writing down it then saying, "h, a, s, h, t, slash l, glottal stop, i, s, h."

She was right.

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Leiba ended up in third place in the elementary school division. The winner of that division was Apache Elementary School student Kiara Benally, while Apache Elementary School student Emiliana Garbiso was second.

In the middle school division, Tibbetts Middle School student Tremayne Yazzie was the winner, while Heights Middle School students Erica Reed was second and Nikolai John was third.

In the high school division, Farmington High School student Jazmin Smiley finished first, Piedra Vista High School student Jalen Harvey was second and Farmington High School student Yazzmine Lee was third.

Tremayne Yazzie, right, won first place in the middle school division at the 2022 Diné Spelling Bee on March 31 at Piedra Vista High School in Farmington. Erica Reed, center, won second and Nikolai John, left, took third.

The road to the Diné Spelling Bee starts with the individual Navajo language classes, where teachers hold classroom spelling bees.

Lee explained that the first, second and third place finishers and an alternate advance to the district competition, then it is opened to other Navajo language students who are interested.

This year's contest marks its return after it was canceled in 2021 due to the pandemic.

Ariana Young, who acted as master of ceremonies for the event, is a 2017 graduate of Farmington High School.

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In remarks, she explained that she attended Navajo language classes from kindergarten through 12th grade.

"Our Diné Bizaad is very, very important to us – not just as individuals but as a nation," Young said. "I'm a full believer that it's just like breathing, you use your senses, you feel the words."

Noel Lyn Smith covers the Navajo Nation for The Daily Times. She can be reached at 505-564-4636 or by email at

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