What’s in a name? (and what isn’t)

The most northerly town in the United States lies more than 300 miles North of the Arctic circle in the state of Alaska. It is surrounded by miles of tundra honeycombed with an unknowable number of lakes and ponds. This web of water and land means that supplies, material and people can only come and go by air or by sea. The town sits where the northern coast of Alaska retreats to the South, turning its back on the place where the Chukchi Sea in the West meets the Beaufort Sea to the East. It is a place of water and of ice, of endless sunlight and of equally endless nights, and it has been officially known, for almost 200 years, as Barrow.

In 1825 Frederick William Beechey, a member of the British Admiralty, named this settlement to honour Sir John Barrow – a man who had never been to Alaska. In this act, Beechey erased the name that had been there long before his colonial administration. The Iñupiaq words that were tied to this land before their arrival speak of an entirely different way of engaging with the natural environment.

Utqiaġvik – a place for gathering wild roots. Ukpiaġvik – a place to hunt snowy owls.

At the end of 2017, a local vote saw a small majority of inhabitants begin a process of officially changing the name of the town back to Utqiaġvik, a new, old name.

East of Utqiaġvik lies a great, invisible line, across which everything changes. In Canada, the people, the culture, the environment, the politics, everything is different. And yet, in 2017 there came another call to change a name – this time, not the name of a settlement but of a single day, every year. The proposal was to change ‘National Aboriginal Day’ to ‘National Indigenous Peoples Day’. It was suggested that National Indigenous Peoples Day more accurately represented the myriad people – First Nations, Inuit and Métis – who have shaped, and continue to direct, the cultural life of the Canadian nation. The proposal was accepted and National Aboriginal Day is now a thing of the past.

Clearly, the words we use every day are more important than we give them credit for. What we say is loaded with history, with cultural and sometimes even colonial assumptions and assertions. The decisions we make about the words we use speak to the way we relate to the past, the present, and the future that we want to create. Allowing the people of Barrow to again be officially seen as the people of Utqiaġvik gives a validity to Iñupiaq culture and experience, admits the negative impact that the colonial administration had on the town, encourages healing and the re-learning of a culture and a language which had been specifically targeted by colonists. By celebrating National Indigenous Peoples Day, the people of Canada are able to show their respect and support for the members of their own society who have been subjugated by colonial powers. This shift in words is more respectful, more inclusive. By changing how we say things, we also change how we think about them.

But it is not enough to change a name if we do not seek to change the continued oppressive colonial powers which shape the lives of indigenous people across the world – minimising their experience, and attempting to assimilate their cultural understandings of themselves and their histories into a cultural context which has rejected them. The events of the Dakota Access Pipeline show with stark clarity that 2017 was far from being all about recognition and respect for indigenous populations in North America. There is still much more work to be done. Though it is a victory, it is not enough to change a name; we must back up our words with actions.

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