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Barrow, Alaska, Changes Its Name Back To Its Original 'Utqiagvik'

A resident of the town formerly known as Barrow, Alaska, rides her motorcycle along an Arctic Ocean beach in 2005. The town is now officially called Utqiagvik, its Inupiaq name.
Al Grillo
A resident of the town formerly known as Barrow, Alaska, rides her motorcycle along an Arctic Ocean beach in 2005. The town is now officially called Utqiagvik, its Inupiaq name.

The northernmost community in the United States has officially restored its original name.

In October, the people of the Alaskan town formerly known as Barrow, on the edge of the Arctic Ocean, voted to restore its indigenous name, Utqiagvik. Zachariah Hughes of Alaska Public Media reported that the traditional Inupiaq name Utqiagvik refers to a place to gather wild roots.

How To Pronounce Utqiagvik

About 4,300 people live in the city according to the most recent Census. The ordinance passed by just six votes, with 381 votes in favor to 375 votes opposed, according to Alaska Dispatch News.

The newspaper reported:

"Qaiyaan Harcharek introduced the ordinance. As the Sounder reported following that meeting, the ordinance's authors wrote 'To do so would acknowledge, honor and be a reclamation of our beautiful language which is moribund.'

"The authors [of the ordinance] also acknowledged that Inupiaq is the 'original, ancestral language of this area and our people' and that returning [the town name] to Utqiagvik would 'promote pride in identity'and would 'perpetuate healing and growth from the assimilation and oppression from the colonists.' "

"Our people were severely punished from speaking our traditional language for many years," Harcharek told Alaska Public Media. "Our language is severely threatened."

The Alaska Native Language Center at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks, estimates that about 3,000 people speak Inupiaq, which is related to other Inuit languages spoken in the circumpolar region including in Canada and Greenland.

Opponents of the name change were concerned it would cost the city money, reported The Arctic Sounder, "both in terms of changing all official references to the name on things like stationery and signage, and the loss of emotional capital or recognition that come along with the name 'Barrow' for tourism and business."

The tourist season in that part of the country is in the summer — this time of year, Utqiagvik is dark 24 hours a day.

Under Alaska law, the community and state had 45 days to approve the change starting the day the local ordinance paperwork was received by the lieutenant governor's office.

A spokesperson for Lt. Gov. Byron Mallott told NPR earlier this month that his office had received the paperwork on Oct. 19, and that officials had decided to aim for a Dec. 1 deadline, just short of the 45-day mark, and that multiple people were working to institute the change.

"This doesn't happen very often," said spokesperson Scott Meriwether. "There are a lot of practical things that need to happen, like new letterheads, websites and signs."

Although the name became official on Thursday, some of those changes are still coming. The state government website listed neither name, Barrow or Utqiagvik, on Thursday. The website for the North Slope Borough School District, of which the high school in Utqiagvik is part, still lists an address in "Barrow, AK."

But the home page for the district did post a pronunciation guide for Utqiagvik, as well as a music video apparently made by students at the high school (still called Barrow High School according to the website.)

The song, "We're Inupiaq," includes a verse about how the students who wrote it view the Inupiaq language:

Today is the day to start a plan; preserve our language, our culture our land.

The future is coming our culture's slowly dying but what are we doing? We're not even trying.

I used to speak the words I learned in class. The man said it's not as important as English and math.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Rebecca Hersher
Rebecca Hersher (she/her) is a reporter on NPR's Science Desk, where she reports on outbreaks, natural disasters, and environmental and health research. Since coming to NPR in 2011, she has covered the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, embedded with the Afghan army after the American combat mission ended, and reported on floods and hurricanes in the U.S. She's also reported on research about puppies. Before her work on the Science Desk, she was a producer for NPR's Weekend All Things Considered in Los Angeles.