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Rural Alaska

Barrow council weighs changing city name, signage from English to Inupiaq

  • Author: Shady Grove Oliver, The Arctic Sounder
  • Updated: August 26, 2016
  • Published August 20, 2016

In a step to further incorporate Inupiaq into everyday life around town, the Barrow City Council last week voted to move ahead with two proposals involving stop signs and the town's name.

The Council unanimously supported a resolution petitioning the state Department of Transportation commissioner to officially change wording on city stop signs to "nutqaġiñ" in Inupiaq.

Writers of the resolution's said they hoped the change would "encourage and perpetuate usage of the Inupiaq language" and having the Inupiaq signs would "visually, subliminally, and mentally engage all people of the danger that our language is in." The change would also "acknowledge, honor, and help reclaim our beautiful language."

Inupiaq translations at the Shell crew camp in Barrow, 2015. (Erik Hill / Alaska Dispatch News)

Since the state driver's license test has a red octagon shape of stop sign on it with no words, meeting-goers said changing the language on the city's signs should be allowed.

Council members also discussed an ordinance at the Aug. 12 meeting to begin the process of changing "Barrow" to "Utqiagvik." Council members said the state requires name change requests include a ratified city ordinance.

"To do so would acknowledge, honor and be a reclamation of our beautiful language which is moribund," the ordinance reads. They further cited that Inupiaq is the "original, ancestral language of this area and our people" … and a new name would "promote pride in identity," and "perpetuate healing and growth from the assimilation and oppression from the colonists."

Barrow resident Charlotte Brower spoke during the public comment period and asked the Council to take care with a proposal this serious.

"What I'm trying to say is, think carefully what you're going to do because there are going to be long-term effects financially. The city of Barrow is well-known. Your status is very strong and so if the name change means that we need to collaborate to emphasize our Inupiaq language, that's where the Inupiaq history and language (commission) is," she said. "Your job is as an incorporated city whose responsibility is to look after this city — Barrow."

She suggested going back to the elders of the community to hear their sentiments on the change and get "good education" before putting a referendum before voters.

Mayor Bob Harcharek agreed with the need to be well-versed in the potential outcomes of the change before putting it on the ballot.

Council member Qaiyaan Harcharek said he was in favor of the proposal  and one of the reasons was his generation grew up not speaking Inupiaq fluently, which stems from the history of contact.

"We're still feeling the effects today," he said.

Council members approved moving forward with the proposal, and opening the conversation to the public.

Correction: An earlier version this story misstated the shape of a stop sign as a hexagon, an error not included in the original Arctic Sounder story. This story has been updated to reflect that stop signs are octagonal.

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