Local corporation sues Arctic Alaskan city to stop reversion to Inupiaq name

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An ATV drives past caribou horns on one of the dirt roads in the Arctic town of Barrow, Alasksa. (Al Grillo / AP)
An ATV drives past caribou horns on one of the dirt roads in the Arctic town of Utqiaġvik (formally known as Barrow). (Al Grillo / AP)
A local native corporation is suing the city formerly known as Barrow, demanding it halt the official name-change to Utqiagvik. At least for now.

The official switch from Barrow to Utqiagvik went into effect on Dec. 1, but city officials said they would hold off on changing any signs, letterhead, or anything else until the lawsuit is settled.

The suit was filed Wednesday by lawyers representing Ukpeagvik Inupiat Corporation, or UIC. In materials submitted to the state court, UIC alleges the City Council voted to put the name-change on the October 4th municipal ballot “without providing the required notice to the Barrow public.” The filing also claims that after repeated requests, city officials have failed to provide any public notices or meeting minutes about the name-change ordinance from when it passed on August 25th, a possible violation of municipal rules.

‘Flawed law’

The main contention of the lawsuit is that the city council’s actions led to the “passage of a flawed law.”

UIC asserts that “Utqiagvik”, which is translated as “the place to gather wild roots,” is a corruption of the name that appears in primary sources. The suit cites 1978 testimony from an Inupiaq elder that the indigenous name was in fact Utkqiagvik, which means “the place where we hunt snowy owls.” Because of the speed with which the city council passed it’s ordinance, knowledgeable elders weren’t consulted, according to the court filings.

UIC, claims the change is costing the city money with a growing list of expenses to change signage, letter-head, and employee hours spent amending language in contracts. UIC says that’s at odds with the fiscal note attached the measure when voted on by area residents. According to an affidavit from former North Slope Borough Mayor Charlotte Brower the full cost for implementation could be in the millions.

All of this is happening as the city council itself voted Nov. 30, to bring a potential repeal of the name-change measure before voters in January. According to the motion filed with the court, the council’s meetings this week were so well attended that extra chairs had to be brought into chambers — a stark contrast to the sparsely attended August meeting. After Wednesday’s meeting, a vote on whether to repeal the name-change measure is now scheduled for January 25th.

Cost of name change

The main contention of the lawsuit is that the city council’s actions led to the “passage of a flawed law,” and risks spending money to change signs, contracts, and seals that won’t be able to be recovered.

Fannie Suvlu is the mayor of Utqiagvik, and presided over the ceremonial renaming earlier Thursday afternoon. She said the city appeared in court today, but it hardly settles the matter as it waits for judgement.

“As far as money being spent on like changing signage around town I believe once we have a clearer idea of what’s actually happening in the court system I’ll have a better opportunity to address that question,” Suvlu said.

Suvlu has also introduced an ordinance to the city council that would put the issue back before voters, asking whether they’d like to repeal to name change. She said that could appear during a special election in March.

Utqiagvik city council member Qiayaan Harcharek said that members were disappointed that money was being spent by the local native corporation on the name issue.

Related story from around the North:

Canada:  Inuit-language movie named best Canadian film of all time by TIFF, Eye on the Arctic

Finland:  English language dominance worries language teachers in Finland, Yle News

Greenland: (VIDEO) The importance of perserving the Inuit language, Eye on the Arctic

Norway:  Sami languages disappear, The Independent Barents Observer

Sweden: Sweden to expand teaching of minority languages, Radio Sweden

Russia:  More students in North Finland opting to study Russian, Yle News

United States: Alaska Iñupiaq leaders hope Barrow’s name change to Utqiaġvik helps heal and teach, Alaska Dispatch News

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Zachariah Hughes, Alaska Public Media

Zachariah Hughes, Alaska Public Media

For more news from Alaska visit Alaska Public Media.

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