The northernmost US city is now Utqiagvik | Americas| North and South American news impacting on Europe | DW | 15.10.2016
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The northernmost US city is now Utqiagvik

Voters in the northernmost US city have voted change town's name to reflect its indigenous-majority population. The Inupiat community of Barrow will be called Utqiagvik (oot-GHAR-vik) to reflect its Native heritage.

A razor-thin margin of six votes approved a referendum this month to change the Alaska community's name to reflect its heritage and identity as a community with more than 60 percent Inupiat Eskimo.

The October 4 plebiscite passed 381-375 after a city councilman, who is Inupiat through his mother's family, introduced a petition as an initiative to reclaim the Arctic native culture that was suppressed in the 19th and 20th centuries.

"It's important to me and many of us because our language is severely threatened and I think it's time we begin healing and this is a literal step into to that decolonization," city councilman Qaiyaan Harcharek told Alaska Public Media in an interview broadcast Friday.

The town was named in 1826 for Sir John Barrow, 2nd Secretary of the British Admiralty. In 1889, a whaling station was established. Explorers, surveyors and scientists also used it as a base of operations as they mapped the Arctic coastline and conducted meteorological research 515 kilometers (320 miles) north of the Arctic Circle.

The native Inupiat population, a branch of the Inuit people who live in the far north of the US and Canada, had their language and culture suppressed when children were forcibly sent to government-run schools, where they were forbidden to speak their native tongue. Harcharek says that past generations had been taught to be ashamed of their native identity but that the name change is proof this is no longer as true.

"I think it has deeper meaning to that than that our people were severely punished from speaking our traditional language for many years," he said. "And a lot of those folks that are around today don't have that internal oppression where they're afraid of that."

As the vote was nearly split, there are many who are unhappy with the result in the city of less than 4,500 people. "I think it's stupid," said William Phillips, a non-Native married to an Inupiat woman who has lived there for 22 years and owns a business with Barrow in the name: Barrow Souvenirs and Gifts. 

But he says there is strong local sentiment in favor. "Most of the yes votes probably were proud Native people who think they're going to revitalize their culture," Phillips told The Associated Press.

BdT Letzter Sonnenuntergang in diesem Jahr in Alaska (AP)

Precise meaning of Utqiagvik unclear

It's still unclear what the city's new Inupiat name means. Some say it means "a place where snow owls are hunted." Harcharek says another theory is that when traders in the 19th century began selling potatoes, they were an instant hit. Natives at the time subsisted largely on protein-rich fish and meats; so starchy foods were much in demand.

"I believe the word for potato was oatkuk, and we also collect different types of roots that are starches and so forth. And it had to do with potatoes and a place to gather potatoes," he said.

The city is also seeking approval from the state of Alaska to change its red traffic signs from "Stop" to the Inupiat equivalent: "Nutqagin." If necessary, the English word "Stop" also would also be added, officials said, but it would be much smaller than the Native word on the red octagonal sign.

Barrow isn't the only Alaska community to change its name in recent years. The western Alaska village now known as Numan Iqua was known as Sheldon Point until 1999, when voters approved the new name by popular vote.

The White House decided last year to bestow the traditional Alaska Native name to North America's tallest mountain, from Mount McKinley to Denali, an Athabascan word meaning "the high one" in a decision that caused some protest in the Lower 48 states.

jar/kl (AP, Alaska Public Media)