Yesterday, Barrow, Alaska, was wiped off the map (not literally, though it has been called "ground zero" for climate change). On December 1, the town of approximately 4,300 people officially changed its name to Utqiagvik, the village’s traditional Inupiaq name, which means the place for gathering wild roots.
Rebecca Hersher at NPR reports that the town voted for the name change in a referendum held on October 10, Indigenous People’s Day, with the change winning by just six votes, 381 for and 375 against. The city, the northernmost in the United States, took the name Barrow from nearby Barrow Point, which is named after Sir John Barrow, 2nd Secretary of the British Admiralty in the last 1800s. But the area has been inhabited by native Alaskans for centuries, with archaeological evidence showing the site was inhabited starting around 500 A.D.
According to Shady Grove Oliver at The Arctic Sounder, the proposal to change the name was introduced in August by city council member Qaiyaan Harcharek. The move would not only acknowledge the history of the area, its proponents wrote that changing the name would honor the disappearing Inupiaq language which is currently spoken by about 3,000 people in Alaska. “To do so would acknowledge, honor and be a reclamation of our beautiful language which is moribund," the ordinance's authors wrote.
Though the name change is now official, local and state government are still making the switch, changing the name on websites, letterhead as well as road signs, reports Hersher. Opponents of the change mainly objected that the name change would cost the city and state money and might be confusing for future tourists.
Harcharek tells Lori Townsend at Alaska Public Media that the name change is part of a healing process for Alaska indigenous peoples. “I’m extremely excited. It’s a time for our people for that decolonization process to begin,” he says. “The reclaiming and honoring of our ancestral language and it’s exciting for it to happen on what people are calling Indigenous Peoples’ Day was extremely serendipitous and it means a lot.”
As for the other 325 million Americans who don’t speak Inupiaq, the North Slope Borough School District provides a handy guide to pronouncing the city’s new name.