Finalists battle for 42 rounds

Navajo Nation Spelling Bee champ wins with Spanish-based word after marathon match

By Noel Lyn Smith
Navajo Times

SHIPROCK, March 22, 2012

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(Special to the Times - Donovan Quintero)

TOP: Seventh graders Aarish Raza, left, and Samuel Yeager, both from Chinle Junior High, battled for 42 rounds before Raza finally won the Navajo Nation Spelling Bee March 15 in Shiprock. Yeager is runner-up.

SECOND FROM TOP: Cairo Nez, a fourth grader at Chinle Elementary School, spells a word during the Navajo Nation Spelling Bee contest at the Phil L. Thomas Performing Arts Center in Shiprock.

BOTTOM: Navajo Nation Spelling Bee competitors await their turn as one contestant tries to spell a word March 15 during the Navajo Nation Spelling Bee in Shiprock.

For Aarish Raza, the fourth time's the charm.

Raza, a seventh-grader from Chinle Junior High School, won the Navajo Nation Spelling Bee by correctly spelling "rejoneador" in Round 42 of the grand spell-off March 15 at the Phil L. Thomas Performing Arts Center.

This was Raza's fourth time competing in the bee and he described his win as "joyous," saying that the key to it was studying every day for two hours with special attention to words that have an "i" before an "e" or have an "e" followed by an "i."

The word that clinched Raza's hold on the title was unusually tough, a Spanish term for a culturally unique occupation - a bullfighter mounted on horseback.

Among the prizes Raza received was a copy of Webster's Third International Dictionary, a camera and a suitcase to take him to the national spelling bee later this spring.

"Make sure the first thing that goes in that bag is that dictionary," said Shawna Claw of the tribe's Office of Youth Development, which co-sponsored the bee with the Navajo Times.

She noted Raza joins former spelling champions Joseph Aruguete and two-time winner Natasha Begay in bringing the title home to the Chinle Agency. He was one of six spellers from the agency who competed in Shiprock.

"We hold it as an honor," said Claw, who is with OYD's Chinle office.

Raza won after going one-on-one for 22 rounds with Samuel Yeager, also a seventh grader at Chinle Junior High.

Despite the confidence with which Raza attacked his words, his road to victory was anything but smooth. In Round 16 he was given "bellicose," and rattled it off without hesitation, only to be told, sorry, he'd missed it.

His rapid-fire delivery prompted the judges to stop the match while they listened to the audio recording to double-check their ears, and then confirmed their finding that Raza had misspelled the word.

The match then resumed and Yeager went on to spell "ostentatious" and was declared the winner.

The bee continued with the runner-up competition, which pitted Raza against Patrick Jansen Malazarte, an eighth-grader from Tuba City Junior High.

But in Round 19 the contest stopped again as Raza's father, Mohammad, filed a grievance asserting that his son had correctly spelled "bellicose."

The judges went back to the audiotape, this time reviewing it for five minutes. They increased the volume to hear better, which revealed that Raza had indeed spelled "B-E-L-L-I-C-O-S-E" correctly.

Raza was reinstated and Yeager was called back to the stage to continue the battle for the championship.

The boys navigated through "banzai" (a Japanese cheer), "picaresque" (a fictional tale centered on a vagabond), "glockenspiel" (a percussion instrument), "balalaika" (a triangular stringed musical instrument), "edelweiss" (a perennial herb of the Alps) and

"pizzicato" (music made by plucking a stringed instrument instead of using the bow).

But in Round 41, Yeager faltered on "Hemerocallis," the Latin name for a day lily, spelling it with one "l."

He realized his mistake immediately but it was too late, all he could do was sit down, the disappointment clear on his face. Commenting later, Yeager was graceful.

"I'm happy," he said of being the runner-up. "There's always a winner and a loser."

After all, he'd bested all but one of the 50 spellers in the who had filled the field that morning.

Their ranks shrank to 10 during the morning session and three more were eliminated in Round 1 of the grand spell-off, including Abraham Aruguete, a sixth-grader from Chinle Elementary School and member of the reservation's most prolific family of spelling champs.

Jaclyn Jack, a fifth-grader from Piñon Elementary, misspelled "graupel" as "grapple" in Round 2.

Alannah Grace-Mangubat, a petite fourth-grader from Tuba City Boarding School, had to angle the microphone down to capture her mastery of "cadenza," "libretto" and "salmonella" before missing on "precipitate" in Round 4.

Miguel Musngi, an eighth grader from Piñon Junior High, was eliminated in Round 6 for spelling "nadir" as "ader."

Despite the admonition from the audience members to remain silent, family members of Cairo Nez, a fourth-grader at Mesa View Elementary School, clapped each time she spelled correctly. With most of the younger contestants eliminated, Nez held her own against the older students until she was eliminated in Round 11 for misspelling "endemic."

From there it was down to three: Raza, Yeager and Malazarte, who lasted until Round 16 when he misspelled "maladroit."

Raza will represent the Navajo Nation at the 2012 Scripps National Spelling Bee in Washington, D.C., from May 27 to June 1. Should he be unable to attend, Yeager will take his place.

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