‘Proud to be an Iñupiaq woman’: Apayauq Reitan makes history as first out trans woman in the Iditarod

A woman in a furruffed parka drives a sled through heavy snow with a person in a thick down jacket sits in a sled in front of her
Msher Apayauq Reitan drives her dog team and Iditarider Warren Schweitzer around a notoriously tough turn during the 2022 Iditarod ceremonial start in Anchorage. Reitan’s sled is waving the Trans Pride flag. (Jeff Chen/Alaska Public Media)

Apayauq Reitan, 24, is making history this week as the first out trans woman to compete in the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, and she’s doing it using her true name. It’s a milestone for the young musher, and a testament to the importance of names and family heritage.

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A family poses for a photo
Apayauq Reitan’s family: Ketil, Apayauq in arms, Vebjorn on floor, Anguyak. (Photo courtesy Anguyak Reitan)

When Reitan, who is Norwegian and Iñupiaq from the North Slope, ran the Iditarod for the first time in 2019, she did it under her gender assigned at birth. She also used her previous name, called a deadname, which she gave up when she transitioned.

“Before I came out, I had a very common name in both English and Norwegian, which was a male name, and I had Apayauq as my middle name,” she said.

It would take another two years after her rookie run for her to come out publicly, which she did on social media on International Women’s Day in 2021. She made the decision to only use her Iñupiaq name, which is non-gendered, from that point on.

“When I transitioned, I decided that I wanted to use my Iñupiaq name because I’m actually named after my great-grandma,” she said. “When I learned that, I kind of knew that I wanted to just start using my Iñupiaq name.”

Naming is a deeply meaningful part of Iñupiaq culture, said her mother Anguyak, of Kaktovik. When Apayauq was born, Anguyak chose her Iñupiaq name. It was a special moment, especially in light of her own experiences when she was young.

Like many of her fellow community members, Anguyak was given an English name – Evelyn – as a child.

“We were forced to be given English names when they were first registering everyone on the North Slope,” Anguyak said.

Now, she only uses her English name occasionally for work, but prefers her Iñupiaq name.

A woman in a red jacket and bunny boots
Apayauq Reitan wearing her favorite color red. (Apayauq Reitan)

For many Alaska Native communities and Indigenous people across the country, an English name carries with it the weight of a history of colonization.

Throughout her early life, Anguyak’s grandmother and the rest of her family only ever called her by her Iñupiaq name. It was the name she recognized as her own.

“When I got sick, my mother and a friend brought me to a doctor,” she said. “And he was trying to say I was Evelyn. And I keep saying, ‘[no], my name is Anguyak.’ The doctor got really mad at me because I refused to be called Evelyn.”

She remembered how upsetting that moment was, being told her name wasn’t her name. Reflecting on that memory, Anguyak said she was proud to start calling her daughter by her chosen name when she came out.

“I’m very proud of her for choosing Apayauq,” Anguyak said.

For Apayauq, coming out has brought her closer not only to her family, but to her Alaska Native heritage. By choosing to use her Iñupiaq name, she’s choosing to center that part of herself, both publicly and personally. In February, she also got her tavluġun, or women’s chin tattoo. It’s like a reclamation of being Indigenous, she said.

“I’m proud to be an Iñupiaq woman,” said Apayauq. “I want to show that we’re still here. There’s a lot of erasure of Indigenous people. People talk about America and Canada as if we’re people that used to exist. But we’re still here.”

A woman in a purple outer layer ties a boot while sitting on a cafeteria bench
Apayauq Reitan ties her overboots on Tuesday in Nikolai after stuffing her feet in a garbage bag to protect them from overflow and other water. (Lex Treinen/Alaska Public Media)

She’s returning to her roots, in more ways than one.

Throughout her life, she’s split her time between Norway and Kaktovik. When she was born in Norway, a journalist came to take a photo and record her birth for a local newspaper.

“It’s actually funny,” Apayauq said. “My mom had decided on my Iñupiaq name, but my dad and my sister had not yet decided on what my Norwegian name was going to be.”

So, the family gave the journalist the only name they had: Apayauq. It’s been her true name all along, she said, and the one she’s using proudly as she makes history this week.

RELATED: Listen to Apayauq Reitan’s interview with Shady Grove Oliver

A woman draped in a trans pride flag
Apayauq Reitan wearing the trans pride flag. (Apayauq Reitan)
A woman holding a blue and pink striped flag in a snow storm
Shannon Cole waves a trans pride flag at the Anchorage ceremonial start of the 2022 Iditarod to celebrate Apayauq Reitan, the first out trans woman to run the race. (Jeff Chen/Alaska Public Media)

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