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Barrow milepost sign.

Barrow, Alaska, Closer to Getting Its Inupiat Name Back

Richard Walker

In 1825, British naval officer Frederick William Beechey, surveying the Alaska coast, named the point jutting out into the Chukchi Sea after Sir John Barrow, a British statesman and promoter of Arctic exploration.

What became the city of Barrow took its name from Point Barrow. But the Inupiat, whose people who had lived here since time immemorial, continued to know their home by the name their ancestors had known it: Utqiaġvik. And Barrow may soon be known officially by that name again.

Barrow residents voted on October 4 to change the city’s name to Utqiaġvik (pronounced "uht-kee-agh-vick”). City Council member Qaiyaan Harcharek, who proposed the change, told The Arctic Sounder that he discussed the name with elders fluent in Inupiaq and was told “Utqiaġvik” stems from a phrase for "picking potatoes.”

According to the North Slope Borough, the regional government, Utqiaġvik means “place where snowy owls are hunted.”

Voters endorsed an ordinance approved by the City Council. That sent the ordinance to Alaska Lt. Gov. Byron Mallott, Tlingit, who, according to KTUU Channel 2 in Anchorage, has 45 days from October 12 to approve the name change. “Once that’s completed, the city can begin the process of changing signage and maps to reflect the new name,” KTUU reported.

While discussion about the meaning of Utqiaġvik continues, Harcharek told Alaska Public Media the reasons why it’s vital the change is made: “It’s important to me and many of us because our language is severely threatened and I think it’s time we begin healing and this is a literal step into that decolonization.”

He added, “I’m extremely excited. It’s a time for our people for that decolonization process to begin. The reclaiming and honoring of our ancestral language …”

The change did not have overwhelming voter support. It was approved 381-375 (the population of Barrow was 4,212 in the 2010 Census; 60.5 percent are Alaska Native/Native American).

And some readers of online news sites wrote that the city’s identity as Barrow is well established, and questioned whether the expense of changing the city’s name on signage was justified.

Harcharek indicated to Alaska Public Media that those sentiments are why the change is important.

“There’s some folks that are afraid of change and change is oftentimes a daunting task and I believe it stems back to how well of a job that the missionaries and the Western folks in BIA schools, how good of a job they did at assimilating our people,” he told Alaska Public Media.

“… Our people were severely punished from speaking our traditional language for many years. And a lot of those folks that are around today don’t have that internal oppression where they’re afraid of that.”

In an interview with The Arctic Sounder, Harcharek said, “I think it's really important as the kids are growing up in our schools that they understand and are taught the oppression and assimilation that our people went through. We're working very hard to get our Alaska history and our local history taught from our perspective in our schools. This is a reclamation of our name."

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