• Man promoting elections in Barrow, where campaign signs are few and far between, usually nailed to a building against the wind blowing off the Arctic Ocean. (AP/Gregory Bull)Source: AP/Gregory Bull
Residents of the largely Inupiat city of Barrow voted in favour of reverting the community's name to 'Utqiagvik'.
18 Oct 2016 - 12:25 PM  UPDATED 18 Oct 2016 - 12:26 PM

The vote was tight, with 381 in favour of the name change and 375 against.

"Basically, it reinforces the cultural identity of the people," said Mayor Bob Harcharek. He noted that early day missionaries set up schools in the area where students were forbidden to speak in their native language and were punished if they did so. "It caused some social psychological problems."

Barrow City Council member Qaiyaan Harcharek, the mayor's son, introduced a local ordinance in August that began the process ratified by voters. The younger Harcharek is Inupiat on his mother's side.

"We are now in an era where the reclamation of tradition is critical to the perpetuation of identity as Inupiat," he wrote in an email.

"The people of Utqiagvik voted to regain our traditional name. Hopefully, it signifies the beginning of a decolonising revolution. Regaining our traditional names is just one step towards that healing!"

The Arctic Ocean coastal town of nearly 5000 was named in 1826 for Sir John Barrow, 2nd Secretary of the British Admiralty, according to the state's community database and other sources.

It's not immediately clear what the city's new Inupiat name means.

Some say it means "a place where snow owls are hunted" while others say it essentially means a place for gathering potatoes, even though potatoes are not native to the area.

With the name change, the town also is seeking state approval to change its stop signs to the Inupiat word "Nutqagin," the mayor said. If necessary, the English word "Stop" also will be added, but it will be much smaller than the Native word on the red octagonal sign.

Another Alaska community in recent years to change its name is the western Alaska village now known as Numan Iqua, which was known as Sheldon Point until voters approved the new name in 1999.

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