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Utqiagvik City Council won't send name change back for a second vote

  • Author: Shady Grove Oliver, The Arctic Sounder
  • Updated: February 6, 2017
  • Published February 6, 2017

A Presbyterian church uses the word Utqiagvik in its name. Voters approved changing the name of the city of Barrow to Utqiagvik in October, a change which went into effect on December 1. In Alaska’s northernmost city, however, residents remain divided about whether they name should’ve changed at all, whether the process was hurried, and whether the Utqiagvik is even the proper Inupiaq place name. Photographed on Wednesday, December 14, 2016. (Marc Lester / Alaska Dispatch News)

The Utqiaġvik City Council on Jan. 31 voted down an ordinance that would have sent its recent name change back for a second vote.

In October, voters in the city formerly known as Barrow narrowly opted to change the name to the Inupiaq "Utqiaġvik," with 381 votes in favor and 375 opposed. The name change took effect on Dec. 1.

Last month's ordinance seeking another vote on the question failed 5 to 1, meaning the name change will not return to the ballot by this path.

Most speakers during the public comment session before the vote favored of keeping the name Utqiaġvik, rather than reverting to Barrow.

"What I want to share is that in the short two months that we reclaimed our original name as Utqiaġvik, I have seen pride grow, pride in our young people, pride in our older people, pride in the fact that you as a city council honored our language by reclaiming Utqiaġvik as the traditional name for this place we call home here now," said Pausauraq Jana Harcharek, who also commented in Iñupiaq.

Bernadette Fisher, one of the council members who voted against the ordinance, echoed Harcharek's words.

"Since this has passed, I've been learning statements from my daughter on how to speak and say things in Inupiaq," Fisher said. "Just last night my daughter said, 'Utqiaġviŋmiuguruŋa.' She's seven. That brought so much joy to my heart."

Several of the people who commented indicated even if there is some disagreement now about what the name should be, they are glad the process has happened.

George Edwardson said what was important was not which name the council chose, but that there has been some kind of change.

"I'd rather take a mistaken name over an Englishman who is the second secretary of the British Royal Navy who came up with Barrow, his boss's name," Edwardson said. "Those people didn't even put their feet on the land that time. They stayed out on their boat that year and went back and we ended up with Point Barrow. People that just wandered in and wandered out, we're going to take their word over what we call ourselves?"

On the other side of the issue were a handful of speakers who had come both independently and representing Ukpeaġvik Iñupiat Corp., the community's Native corporation, which is currently suing the city over the name change.

The corporation's suit argues the council didn't follow an appropriate public process when adopting name change ordinance last summer and fall. To date, the court has not granted an injunction on the name and has postponed the hearing.

When the ordinance first came up for discussion on Tuesday, the chairman of the corporation board, Price Brower, asked to read the grievance in full before the council.

Before the council members voted on the new ordinance, Kuutuuq Olemaun, who cast the single vote in favor of sending the name change back before voters, voiced her thoughts on what she'd heard in meetings leading up to this one.

"Whether it's Barrow or Utqiaġvik or Ukpeaġvik, I did a little research myself and it's hit or miss. Three out of 10 is Ukpeaġvik. The other seven is Utqiaġvik," Olemaun said "I just want to state that I'm not against the name change but us in these seats need to hear the people and I just believe we didn't take the responsibility to educate ourselves because what we heard in the public meetings after Oct. 4 may have changed some things in our votes…We need to listen to our community, our Elders, and those that took the time to come to those public meetings and say what they had to say to us as council members."


This story first appeared in The Arctic Sounder and is republished here with permission.

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