A slight majority of voters in the largely Inupiat city of Barrow approved efforts to change the community's name to Utqiagvik (oot-GHAR-vik) in their local election Oct. 4. The vote was tight, with 381 in favor of the name change and 375 against it.
"Basically, it reinforces the cultural identity of the people," said Mayor Bob Harcharek, who is not Native. He noted that early day missionaries set up schools in the area where students were forbidden to speak in their native language and were punished if they did so. "It caused some social psychological problems."
Barrow City Council member Qaiyaan Harcharek, the mayor's son, introduced a local ordinance in August that began the process ratified by voters. The younger Harcharek is Inupiat on his mother's side.
"We are now in an era where the reclamation of tradition is critical to the perpetuation of identity as Iñupiat," he wrote in an email Friday to The Associated Press. "The people of Utqiagvik voted to regain our traditional name. Hopefully, it signifies the beginning of a decolonizing revolution. Regaining our traditional names is just one step towards that healing!"
As you can imagine this decision is not going over well with folks who run businesses with the name "Barrow" over the top, nor with many of the non-native residents.
However it is hard to blame the people of Utqiagvik for wanting to get back some of the heritage that was beaten out of them by the early missionaries.
As I have shared before what happened to the native children in Alaska was horrific and essentially constituted the wholesale destruction of an entire culture.
The children were torn from their families, and sometimes sent as far away as Arizona, to be "properly" educated in the ways the white man.
As a result many of the children returned to Alaska villages unable to speak the language, knowing nothing about how to survive in one of the most inhospitable places on the planet, and stripped of any sense of self worth.
Alcoholism and drug use became an epidemic, and many of these villages still have no recovered.
So yeah, Utqiagvik (oot-GHAR-vik) is hard as hell to pronounce. But tough shit, learning to do so is really the very least we can do to show respect for a people who have managed to survive frigid temperatures, famine, pestilence, and of worst of all, the arrival of the Christians.