AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
Exactly one year from today, the 2020 census is set to begin in a small Alaskan village on the Bering Sea. It's a tradition for Alaska's rural communities to be counted first. NPR's Hansi Lo Wang explains why.
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HANSI LO WANG, BYLINE: Ever since Alaska became the 49th state in 1959...
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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: In the White House, President Eisenhower signed the proclamation that makes Alaska's entry into the union official.
WANG: ...The most remote parts of the most northern state have gotten a head start for the national head count. For the rest of the U.S., the census has started on or around census day - April 1. But by that time of the year, snow and ice are melting in rural Alaska.
CAROL GORE: The best time to get to those communities is usually in the winter, when the ground is frozen.
WANG: Carol Gore is the chair of the Census Bureau's National Advisory Committee on racial, ethnic and other populations.
GORE: I describe myself as a forever-Alaskan of Aleut descent. My mom was born and raised in a very small village south of Anchorage called Ninilchik. That means a peaceful place.
WANG: Ninilchik is connected to highways and roads, unlike more than 80 percent of communities in the state. Gore says in what's known as Bush Alaska, it can be hard to complete a census form by mail or online. So census workers have to go door to door by foot in a village before they venture on to the next one.
GORE: Often, it's a combination of dog sled, snow machine travel or bush plane to get into a community.
MARK NEUMAN: One size fits all did not apply in terms of the census to Alaska. That was the message from Senator Ted Stevens.
WANG: Mark Neuman was the Census Bureau's director of congressional affairs before the 1990 census. He remembers how the late Republican Senator Ted Stevens pushed to make sure Alaska's population count was accurate. Those numbers determine how many congressional seats, Electoral College votes and how much federal funding Alaska would get.
Neuman says getting the correct count in rural Alaska required what was once considered a unique approach.
NEUMAN: To make sure that the person knocking on the door for the census looked like and sounded like the person answering the door.
WANG: That often means hiring local residents who can speak Alaskan native languages, like Yup'ik.
ROBERT PITKA: (Speaking Yup'ik), meaning counting people
WANG: Robert Pitka is the tribal administrator for the Nunakauyak Traditional Council, which governs the Nunakauyarmiut Tribe of Toksook Bay, Alaska, the first community that will be counted for the 2020 census. Pitka says he expects to see a bump up from the 2010 population count of 590.
PITKA: We have young families. And because our size is growing, there is more need in the village for housing.
WANG: Still, whatever changes the 2020 census will show, Pitka says he hopes the people of Toksook Bay will continue carrying on the traditions of their ancestors who settled in the treeless, cold deserts of Alaska's tundra.
PITKA: When you look at the world and all the starving and suffering, I would say the Eskimos are the luckiest people in the world because we can survive off the land.
DIANA THERCHIK: Each family fishes for herring. And once gutted, we braid them with grass and hang them to dry, and that'll be one of the staple foods for the whole winter.
WANG: Diana Therchik was born and raised in Toksook Bay.
THERCHIK: I used to go help with fishing. I got seasick - never again.
WANG: She's now the operations manager at the local health clinic. Therchik says unlike in some other rural Alaskan villages, residents of Toksook Bay can go fishing and hunting near their homes, and families don't have to migrate. So when the census workers come around...
THERCHIK: I should be here. Like our people say, (speaking Yup'ik). If nothing happens to either you or me...
WANG: We will see each other again someday. And if that day is next January 21, it'll be during the start of the 2020 census in Toksook Bay, Alaska. Hansi Lo Wang, NPR News.
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