Alaska’s northernmost town still in transition 1 1/2 years after official name change

The new logo for the City of Utqiaġvik, photographed June 5. In October 2016, residents of the town formerly known as Barrow voted to officially change the name of their city to the traditional Iñupiaq name Utqiaġvik. (Photo by Ravenna Koenig/ Alaska’s Energy Desk.)

The town most of the world knew as Barrow voted in 2016 to officially start going by the traditional Iñupiaq name of Utqiaġvik.

The vote passed by a slim margin of 6 votes.

Some residents pushed back in the ensuing months, wanting to keep the name Barrow. Others said the town historically had a different traditional name, which was the view of the local Native corporation that filed a lawsuit to try to stop the change.

Over year and a half later, Utqiaġvik is still what the town is officially called.

But when you arrive by plane, the first thing you see is the word “Barrow” printed over the airport on the side facing the tarmac. 

“Barrow” is everywhere while walking around town: on the fire trucks, in the name of the high school, the local utility company, on the North Slope Borough’s official logo. It’s even scrawled on some of the brightly painted dumpsters.

City Hall has “Utqiaġvik” on the front of the building. And on bulletin boards around town where people post notices to the community, “Utqiaġvik” is starting to appear in some municipal department letterhead.

When you ask people what they call it, you get a real mix:

“I call it Utqiaġvik now,” James Koonaloak said.

“I still call it Barrow,” Murphy Nuglene said.

“I will use both at this point,” Muriel Brower said.

“I still call it Barrow out of habit,” Mary Patkotak said.

“Utqiaġvik,” Richard Okpeaha said.

“I was born in Barrow and I still live in Barrow,” Isaac Kalayauk said.

“Utqiaġvik,” Edith Nageak said. “I’m very happy they changed it to the original name.”

A lot of feathers got ruffled here when the name change went through.

Less than 20 percent of the town voted.

Some said they didn’t have enough time between the proposed change and ballot voting to really become aware of what was going to be decided at the polls.

There are people who still feel the official name should have remained Barrow.

Charles Brower, interim executive director at the Native Village of Barrow — the local tribal government — is one of them.

“I wasn’t interested in changing the name to Utqiaġvik,” he said. “It’s always been Barrow.”

He adds that the tribal council has no plans to change its name.

Then there are those who were really supportive of the change.

Fannie Akpik, the coordinator for Iñupiaq Education for the North Slope Borough school district, says hearing people calling the name of her hometown Utqiaġvik “warms my spirit.”

Akpik is in her 60s and says she doesn’t remember hearing the name Barrow until she showed up for her first day of school and saw it written on the building.

For her, the reversion to the traditional name is a way of affirming the Iñupiaq identity of this place.

“Someday I hope everybody will walk around and be proud to live in Utqiaġvik like I do,” Akpik said.

Tennessee Judkins teaches Iñupiaq education for the school district.

She voted to change the name, but also said that she’s OK if certain things in town continue to be called “Barrow” such as the high school where she played volleyball and rooted for the basketball teams.

“I wouldn’t be sad if it never changed,” Judkins said of her alma mater. “That’s one thing I’m like, cool, you can keep it Barrow High School, ’cause we are Barrow Whalers.”

Some of the initial hubbub about the name change has quieted at this point.

But Utqiaġvik is still in transition.

There’s a mountain of logistics that go into changing a place’s name. And some of that costs money, which was one of the initial concerns brought up by people who were against the change.

It’s unclear how long it will be before all the signage, textbooks, maps and the airport code fully reflect the name Utqiaġvik.

A T-shirt for sale at the Iñupiat Heritage Center in Utqiaġvik. In the gift shop you can buy items that say both ‘Barrow,’ and ‘Utqiaġvik.’ (Photo by Ravenna Koenig/Alaska’s Energy Desk)

For now at least, what people call this place seems to be a choice they’re making day by day, conversation by conversation, document by document.

At the DMV, for example, residents can choose what name they want printed on their driver’s license.

Dawndee Ipalook, who works at the DMV, issues those IDs. When asked for an estimate of the percentage of people who are choosing Barrow versus Utqiaġvik, Ipalook said, “I would say about probably 80-20.”

That’s 80 percent Barrow, 20 percent Utqiaġvik.

A lot of people choose Barrow because it’s easier to spell, Ipalook said.

Others have come in to add Utqiaġvik to their ID even though it hasn’t expired yet, just because they’re proud of the name.

Robert Nageak, who grew up here, says he respects the change, and uses Utqiaġvik sometimes himself, but he’s not a stickler for what people call this place.

“I just don’t have a problem with either/or,” he said. “Utqiaġvik; Barrow; still the same place. The most northern city in the United States of America.”

In other words, home.

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