Call it an “October surprise.” On Indigenous Peoples’ Day, the city of Barrow, Alaska, population 4,000, voted to change its name to Utqiaġvik (pronounced OOT-kay-AHG-vick). This was the community’s traditional name before its involuntary association with a 19th century Englishman.
Sixty percent of the residents of Utqiaġvik, which lies 320 miles above the Arctic Circle, are Iñupiat Eskimo. Sir John Barrow, a booster of Arctic voyages, never made the trip to Alaska himself, let alone to its northern extremity, but an admirer of his named Frederick Beechey tagged the area with Barrow’s name 191 years ago.
On Oct. 10, the town passed the name change by just six votes, 381–375. Qaiyaan Harcharek, the city council member who sponsored it, told Alaska Public Media that the tight margin reflected unease with change and fading memories of the early damage wrought by Western assimilation.
“Our people were severely punished for speaking our traditional language for many years, (but) a lot those folks that are around today don’t have that internal oppression where they’re afraid of that,” he said.Opponents cited the cost of changing signs and town stationary as well as the cultural loss of dropping “Barrow.” But others asked a different question: “What could be gained by calling the place ‘Utqiaġvik’?”
A recent high-profile decision in Alaska offers clues to that question. Last August, Interior Secretary Sally Jewell officially ordered that Mount McKinley, North America’s loftiest peak, be renamed Denali, the Dene name used locally for centuries. The writer John McPhee told the Native Alaskans’ side of the story in 1976:
“(They) are not much impressed that a young Princeton graduate on a prospecting adventure in the Susitna Valley in 1896 happened to learn, on his way out of the wilderness, that William McKinley had become the Republican nominee for President of the United States. In this haphazard way, the mountain got the name it would carry for at least the better part of a century, notwithstanding that it already had a name. … The Indians in their reverence had called it Denali.”
The howls of protest from McKinley’s native Ohio — House Republican Speaker John Boehner called it “deeply disappointing” — puzzled Alaskans, including Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski, who applauded the gesture of “honor, respect and gratitude” to the peoples of a locale President McKinley had even less to do with than Sir John Barrow. (A flier I saw in an office cheerily mocked the controversy by suggesting that Alaskans would concede the name of their mountain if the Ohio River were renamed for Sarah Palin.)
Some might roll their eyes at the apparent superficiality of names, whether they apply to a 20,000-foot rock pile or a tiny settlement on the continental fringe. Surely, there are more pressing issues for government to tackle.
But names are far from superficial. The christenings of Barrow and Mount McKinley were justified by an archaic doctrine of discovery that led to five centuries of Western conquest and colonization. They were the equivalent of campaign signs and sponsorship banners staked in someone else’s yard. Enshrined by history, names signal to generations to come which cultures and people are worthy of reverence.
Now, a Native American renaissance is underway, crystallized by the successful Standing Rock protest against a pipeline in North Dakota. The importance of this struggle may have been mysterious to many Americans because so few of us truly comprehend the rights, status and aspirations of what amounts to 1 percent of our nation’s population.
One symptom of this that I’ve noticed is a cynical approach to the social plagues of Alaska Natives. It’s the call for them to “own” their modern problems, the subtext of which is a call for absolving Western interlopers of their role in changing Native communities forever. I have no doubt that these are some of the same blithe souls who maintain that the city at the top of the world and the great mountain, respectively, will always be Barrow and McKinley to them. But what exactly is a name, if not a claim of ownership?
The ordinance shedding the city’s colonialist moniker is intended to help the Iñupiat reclaim their beautiful language. But like the earthen berms that try to shore up Utqiaġvik’s eroding coastline, it could very well prove to be a stopgap, a desperate last stand against the dovetailing losses of language and land. Yet it is a worthwhile, even a necessary step, now approved by the state’s lieutenant governor. It says, “We are the people who belong to this place. Whatever its past, we can still shape its future.”
Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at firstname.lastname@example.org.