Barrow votes to change name to Utqiagvik

Utqiagvik, the city formally know as Barrow, AK (File photo courtesy of Wikipedia)
(Utqiagvik, the city formally know as Barrow, AK (File photo courtesy of Wikipedia)

Utqiagvik. That’s the name that Barrow will now be identified as.

By a margin of six votes, residents of Barrow have voted to change the name of their city back to its Inupiaq name. City council member Qaiyaan Harcharek started the process this summer.

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TOWNSEND: I realize that Inupiaq words may not have a direct translation into English, but tell us about the meaning behind the name of your city now.

HARCHAREK: I guess it goes back to a conversation that some folks were having in the 1978 Elder’s Conference, and that question was asked, “What does Utqiagvik mean?”. One gentleman had mentioned that, as he recalled, it was as the whaler and outsiders began coming to Barrow and bringing in other good, including different Western food, one of them was potatoes, and 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.

TOWNSEND: Before absentee and questioned ballots were counted, the vote was tied. What were the objections to changing the name?

HARCHAREK: There’s some folks that are afraid of change and change is often times a daunting task and I believe it stems back to how well of a job that the missionaries and the Western folks in BIA schools, how good of a job they did at assimilating our people. And so, Barrow’s name came from Sir John Barrow from Frederick Neitzsche naming this area after a buddy of his and that took. And I think it has deeper meaning to that than that our people were severely punished from speaking our traditional language for many years. And a lot of those folks that are around today don’t have that internal oppression where they’re afraid of that.

TOWNSEND: Qaiyaan, why is this important?

HARCHAREK: 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.

TOWNSEND: How excited are you about making this transition?

HARCHAREK: I’m extremely excited. It’s a time for our people for that decolonization process to begin. 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.


Reporter Shady Grove Oliver first wrote about the name change for the Arctic Sounder.

Lori Townsend is the news director and senior host for Alaska Public Media. You can send her news tips and program ideas for Talk of Alaska and Alaska Insight at or call 907-550-8452.

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