Alaska town’s new Inupiat name to stay - for now

ANCHORAGE — Alaska voters in the nation’s northernmost town won’t get a chance at the polls after all to repeal the community’s new Inupiat Eskimo name after local officials shot down the idea.

 

The City Council in the town formerly known as Barrow voted 5-1 against the proposal by Mayor Fannie Suvlu last week.

Suvlu was voted into office in the same October 2016 election that saw voters approve the town’s new name, Utqiagvik (oot-GHAR’-vik), by six votes. After introducing her proposal late last year, she said her action was prompted by several factors, including the tight vote and claims by a handful of locals in the town of 5,000 that there was no due process before the name-change vote.

The council’s Jan. 31 rejection of Suvlu’s proposal came after locals had several opportunities to address the issue, she said Monday. She said it was time for her to focus on other things.

“Regardless of whether we’re Utqiagvik or Barrow, I’m serving the same community members,” Suvlu said. “We’re still here to serve the people.”

The new name is being challenged by a local Alaska Native corporation, which filed a civil lawsuit after the election. The lawsuit says city officials rushed the process with insufficient outreach to the public. In court documents, the Ukpeagvik Inupiat Corp. says the lack of input from the public led to a flawed law being passed, one that didn’t even use the correct traditional name for the city. They say the correct word is Ukpeagvik, which means “the place where we hunt snowy owls.”

The case has not been resolved. Representatives of the Native corporation did not immediately respond to requests for comment Monday.

City Council member Qaiyaan Harcharek, who was among those voting against the repeal ballot proposal last week, introduced a local ordinance last August that began the process for the new name that was ultimately ratified by voters. Harcharek has said Utqiagvik essentially means a place for gathering potatoes.

Harcharek said Monday that even the state believed name-change proponents followed the correct procedure. The state has formally certified the name change.

“I wanted to respect the vote for those folks that voted — with the democratic process that we live in,” he said. “It is the responsibility of the voter to educate themselves on what is on the ballot. We do it at the state level, at the presidential level. You should be doing it as the local level as well.”

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