Along The Rim of Alaska, The Once-A-Decade U.S. Census Began In Toksook Bay
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Counting in the 2020 U.S. Census starts today. And it begins in the most remote communities of Alaska, like this small fishing village, population 590 as of 2010, where we find NPR's Hansi Lo Wang.
HANSI LO WANG, BYLINE: The village of Toksook Bay sits on the remote southwestern edge of Alaska.
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WANG: For most visitors, it's only accessible by a tiny bush plane...
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WANG: ...That at this time of year lands on a windswept airstrip usually covered in snow.
MICHAEL ROBBINS: And I got your keys to everything that you need.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Great, thank you.
WANG: Michael Robbins, the local principal at Nelson Island School, greets some of the first Census Bureau officials to arrive in Toksook Bay before the count begins. It's all part of a once-in-a-decade January tradition that goes back to the first U.S. count after Alaska became a state in 1959.
JESSICA IMOTICHEY: One thing that people learn really quickly here in Alaska is the weather is always the boss.
WANG: Jessica Imotichey coordinates the Census Bureau's outreach to tribal governments in Alaska where she says in order to meet the U.S. Constitution's requirement of counting every person living in the country, the key is to have snow boots on the ground when it's frozen and before it melts during the spring thaw...
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: OK. You ready?
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WANG: ...Along with four-wheelers, snow machines and dog sleds. Jessica Imotichey says starting in January also means the Census Bureau is more likely to find Alaska's most far-flung residents.
IMOTICHEY: They won't be out hunting or commercial fishing. And so we are able to get them at home because we do do that personal knock at the door.
WANG: In Toksook Bay, though, subsistence fishing can last throughout the year for some residents, including Jackie Woods (ph).
JACKIE WOODS: Now, not that deep, but it's good.
WANG: Woods cuts ice fishing holes while the temperature hovers a few degrees over zero Fahrenheit.
WOODS: Whew, sometimes don't catch fish for maybe an hour, two.
WANG: For Woods, it's dinner options and not the census that's top of mind.
When you're in the store, do people talk about the census?
MARIA WHITE: No. Hardly.
WANG: No one, hardly anyone?
WANG: Maria White works the register at Bayview General Merchandise, one of three village stores in Toksook Bay. White says she doesn't remember taking part in the 2010 census.
But this time you want to participate.
WHITE: To see how many people there is in Toksook.
WANG: You're curious?
ROBERT PITKA: It's a growing community. In each village, the numbers are growing.
WANG: Robert Pitka is a tribal administrator for the Nunakauyak Traditional Council, which governs the Nunakauyarmiut Tribe of Toksook Bay, which Pitka says could use a bigger share of the estimated $1 1/2 trillion a year in federal funding that are distributed in part based on census numbers.
PITKA: I believe the census count will make it possible. You know, the census has benefits for the next 10 years. God knows what's coming.
WANG: One thing that Pitka is expecting is the Census Bureau counting Toksook Bay elder Lizzie Chimiugak first, which Chimiugak says is an overwhelming honor.
LIZZIE CHIMIUGAK: (Speaking Yup'ik, laughter).
KATIE SCHWARTZ: She doesn't know how to feel because this is just one in every day that comes rolling in.
WANG: Toksook Bay residents are planning to mark the start of the census later today with traditional Yup'ik dancing, which Chimiugak says is a way of bringing the community together by expressing their love.
CHIMIUGAK: (Speaking Yup'ik).
SCHWARTZ: She wants everybody to show love and compassion towards all human beings, young and old.
WANG: A wish from the first person to be counted for the 2020 census.
Hansi Lo Wang, NPR News, Toksook Bay, Alaska.
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